The season of Advent formally begins a week from now, December 3rd being the first of the four Sundays before Christmas Day. For many of us, however, the preparations for "the crowning of the year" began weeks -- and even months -- ago; there have been Christmas cards and decorations in the stores and markets since before Halloween, and most of us know of certain relatives who start squirreling away cards and presents for the following year starting on December 26. I admit, I am one of those relatives -- even though I also invariably invoke a "Twelve Days of Christmas" rule when it comes to actually getting those cards and presents into the mail: if it's postmarked by Epiphany, I'm doing better than usual. The spirit is enthusiastic, but it seems like every year there's less time and less me to go around when the season actually dawns.
I have a complicated relationship with the holiday we know as "Christmas" as it is. It has inspired countless masterpieces in art, music, and literature over the centuries, and it encourages ordinary people to invest in beauty and take creative chances like no other occasion I know of. It's the only time of year I hear from certain people I still care about, and let's not forget the food. For some of my adamantly non-theist colleagues, partaking of toffee and bourbon-enhanced beverages is the closest thing they're willing to consider "a religious experience."
So, there's much to love and enjoy about the Christmas season. That said, there remains the fact that "the reason for the season" doesn't resonate with me. Not only am I not a Christian, I don't believe in a Messiah, period, so I find it problematic for me to recite prayers that celebrate the prospect of his arrival or return. It's a problem, however, I regard as specifically mine: I'm not interested in converting anyone else to my particular lack of belief in saviors or utopias. There are a whole lot of people smarter than me who do believe in Jesus Christ, and there are also a whole lot of people smarter than me who don't, and many of them have invested immense quantities of time and money and resources arriving to where their beliefs reside today.
Even so, I believe what I believe, and I find it sufficiently comforting and challenging enough that I'm inclined to resent anyone who attempts to convert me to their system of belief or unbelief, however well-intentioned. Unitarian Universalism is often mocked -- and at times even condemned -- for its reluctance to offer or declare collective absolutes, but this very characteristic is what makes membership in this denomination even remotely tenable for me: at the end of the day, what someone believes doesn't matter nearly as much to me as what they do. If believing in a Messiah is what it takes to get them out of bed in the morning, then I want their world to have a Messiah. If not believing in a Messiah is what they require to engage with this world in the here and now, then not believing in one is the path they need to follow. The fourth UU principle -- to affirm and promote each other's "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" -- doesn't decree that we all have to end up at the same destination, much less at the same time, or use identical maps to get there. At its best, Unitarian Universalism understands and acknowledges that different people need different things from God -- and from each other -- and that the Holy Spirit makes itself manifest in many different guises and voices.
At the same time, Advent is almost upon us, bringing with it the "greening" of numerous churches and homes with fragrant branches of pine and fir. The ritual of lighting candles during each Sunday of Advent is one celebrated in multiple denominations, albeit with different approaches and emphases. When I searched for guides to Advent via the internet, I came across several versions that incorporated Native American symbolism, and another tailored to Unitarian Universalist worship. Even within groups for whom the celebration of Advent is widely observed -- for instance, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans -- you will encounter variations in the liturgies performed, in the colors chosen for the candles, and even in the theological priorities their pastors choose to advocate. For numerous individuals, the formal observance of Advent functions as an oasis of calm and centering, providing a much-needed counterpoint to the commercial hustle and bustle of secular Christmas preparations.
Some believers are troubled, however, by what they see as a widespread tendency to minimize or ignore the penitential aspect of the season -- that the necessity of a Savior being born comes from our sins needing to be redeemed by his terrible, gruesome death. In Christian churches, this year's Gospel reading for Advent Sunday is from Luke, chapter 21, which speaks not of shepherds and stars but of the Apocalypse:
25 "And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves,
26 men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
27 And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
29 And he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree, and all the trees;
30 as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near.
31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all has taken place.
33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 "But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare;
35 for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth.
36 But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man."
Not exactly the stuff of snowflake-covered holiday cards. In contrast, the most-viewed essay (as of last week) in NPR's "This I Believe" series (as of last week) is by magician Penn Jillette, who firmly asserts that his unbelief in God serves as the rock-solid foundation to his days. Quote:
... it informs every moment of my life. I'm not greedy. I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it's everything in the world and everything in the world is plenty for me. It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I'm raising now is enough that I don't need heaven. . ...Believing there is no God means the suffering I've seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn't caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn't bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.
Also not quite the stuff of seasonal greetings.
I can't even begin to do justice to either of these statements -- and, indeed, I wouldn't want you to accept either of them as prescriptions for your own life without a good deal of free and responsible soul-searching. What I do want, however, is to look a little closer at the qualities they do have in common -- those of anticipation and accountability. Although they speak from almost opposite vantage points, both the evangelist and the magician speak about taking heed and staying watchful. For both of them, the future is not a vague, cozy vision of utopian bliss, but something that will require attention and preparation and strength for us to us to do it justice, whether it's answering the mandates of a higher power or doing right by future generations.
One of the most popular and best-known symbols of Advent is a calendar full of doors and windows, one to be opened each day until Christmas. Now, I will be the first to admit that I completely and totally lose when it comes to waiting patiently: I open presents as soon as I get them unless my husband manages to intercept them, and I'm notorious for reading the ends of novels first -- so much that one of my friends recently put a dummy ending on her manuscript just to fake me out. With Advent calendars, the inner ten-year-old in me still wants to open all those tantalizing doors and windows now, even though I'm old enough to know that Christmas isn't going to get here any sooner or later than it's a-gonna, no matter how frantically I rush around. I'm old enough to know that it isn't only up to me to make the holidays "a success" for the people who matter to me, but also that I do have a role in that, whether I asked for it or not, and whether I like it or not. I've already seen editorials in the newspapers talking about the countdown to Christmas Day and how it can feel like a "holiday doomsday clock" [The Nashville Rage] ticking away once you're an adult, and I've read online journals where people have posted about not doing holiday cards because they're too tired, too jaded, too disorganized, and/or too fed up with the pressures of the season.
As I say almost every Sunday I'm here, I don't have the answers and I can't give you the rules. That's not my job, and neither is it the job of any other preacher in our tradition. What is my job is to point out that our fourth principle doesn't say just "a free search for truth and meaning," it says "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." As Unitarian Universalists, the liberalism of our denomination encourages us to explore multiple traditions and systems of belief, but as we do so, it's essential to keep in mind that the rituals and beliefs we may want to borrow or adopt need to be examined not just in terms of what "feels right" or suitably "spiritual" for our own needs, but our relationships with the traditions from which we build our individual theologies. It means not dismissing traditional religions out of hand, no matter how maddening or misguided their more extreme adherents may appear to us, but neither does it mean we can allow them to speak for us in the larger community. Part of the responsibility of Universalism is to teach and remind the wider world that there are many paths to whatever we choose to call salvation; if we don't speak up against the prophets who insist there is one and only one oh-so-narrow path to grace, who will?
It's also essential to recognize that the principle says "search for truth and meaning." There's no guarantee that you'll find truth and meaning in coming to church, but I like to think that, at their best, our churches create an environment both where it's safe to be uncertain and where people do often discover the strength they need to flourish. At its best, I believe that's what the season of Advent can bring to us as well: no matter how many lists we make and check them twice, there are bound to be surprises -- both of the joyful and disappointing varieties. The challenge of the season is to keep opening those doors and windows -- to keep the watch, to keep greeting uncertainty -- and to be of stout heart. Each and every one of us is needed to help this world bloom into its better self. Amen and alleluia.