Week 1 of Advent
Advent 2018: The Attention Game
Awareness comes to us in the most unlikely of places, if we are willing to pay attention. In the early 2000s, before every other movie was a superhero movie, there was the original X-Men. Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, Ian McKellen as his arch-nemesis/frenemy, Magneto. The film opens with the two leaving a political summit to arrange for peace between humans and mutants (Remember… unlikely places… stick with me). Charles, the eternal optimist believes in the coexistence of these two groups, Magneto, his old friend and former ally, convinced the only way forward is mutant dominance. In light of his friend’s belief in a better world and a better way Magneto looks condescendingly and says,
“Ahh, Charles. You’re ongoing search for hope,” pity dripping from his voice. “I will give you hope, Charles, just don’t stand in my way.”
I watched that scene over and over and over. The X-Men and their message that weirdness could mean wonder was a deep part of my childhood memory. The battle between these two great British actors staring each other down, giving an acting MasterClass while wearing superhero costumes was incredible and new. But the draw back to it, and the way it emotionally lodged in my mind, recurring to me over and over and over for many years, was not a product of any of those things. What stuck with me was the terrifying realization was that was how I felt about God.
I felt like Charles Xavier, desperately believing in a better world. Wanting to spend the days of my life in whatever way I could help such a world come into being, praying regularly for openings and promptings. And as much as I would have pronounced my love for God from the rooftops, in my heart of hearts I believed He was more like Magneto—willing to go to war to give hope, and willing to take casualties along the way.
“I will give you hope, Nick, just don’t stand in my way.”
I grew up like I suspect many of you did, well informed of the capricious God who is so committed to saving the world that He will discipline us, cause us to suffer, even to the point of murdering His own Son if that’s what it takes to save the world. If God’s actions didn’t feel good, it was because we lacked faith. And if there was pain in your life, it was because you’d done something to deserve it. God was teaching you a lesson.
And yet, God is love.
If these teachings didn’t feel like love, it’s because we had (what I was often accused of) a hippie-dippie kind of idea about love. Hope, if such a thing was necessary, was reserved for a far-off heaven and THIS life, all 80 or so years of it, was reserved for the hard work of earning your stripes, living in such a way that made hope unnecessary.
For all my wanting to trust in God, the God-in-the-box I knew from the earliest years of my life was difficult to trust—or truly believe in at all. As Christians we are so often practicing Atheists, professing belief in a God that they wouldn’t dare trust with their actions. God helps those who help themselves after all. For me, time would tell if the label proved true.
Advent: God of the Helpless
This strange story brings us to the strange business of Advent. In the liturgical calendar, the four Sundays preceding Christmas Eve represent the beginning of the Christian year, the beginning of all things new. As with all beginnings, the theme of Advent is waiting. Advent’s first week starts with a strange brew of Biblical ideas: the Hebrew prophets, the End of the World, and Hope.
These liturgical Advent themes bear little correlation to our real experience of the first weeks of Christmas which is maybe what makes Advent so hard.
We spend this week, in most cases, helping ourselves. Getting our lists made and done, announcing on Facebook that we have all our gifts bought. Finalizing the plans of which family member’s house we will attend on Christmas Eve, and which church’s service we may enjoy or endure. We bustle about at work pulling together our part of the annual business plan, meeting year-end sales goals, or trying to stay under the radar of a manager who is trying to save his job before the calendar hits January.
We are frantic in our doing and list-managing, the subtle threats of a New Year and its requisite resolutions knocking at our door. Will we promise to lose weight again this year? Will we be better savers, laugh more, read more fiction? We don’t have time for all that forcefulness yet, but it is threatening.
Practical Atheism is palpable in our actions, at least me, if not you, even at our most religious. Perhaps we have risen above the “petty” doings of gift buying and party attending and home decorating. Perhaps we have thrown all our effortfulness at getting Advent right, earning the purity of our spirituality, showing the wokeness of our liturgical reawakening.
We are, as I recently was, sitting in pews, listening to well-meaning sermons, being arm-twisted once again that our anxiety and our rush, our fear and our shame, our contempt and our myopia are all a matter of our not being Christian enough. Our churches offer us one more catalogue of better performances to choose from. This one—the ultra-thick, gold-leafed door-stopper variety—containing all the good Christianing that must be done this season to prove we are better than the commercialized “nons” out there.
If you pay attention, you see in all the hustle and bustle signs of our helplessness. We can’t help but throw ourselves at the chance to improve life on our own. We, like all children of force are dying by force, as Jesus said it would be so. When He said that those who live by the sword, die by the sword He surely meant more than long pieces of forged iron. He surely meant the swords of violence in all its flavors: self-hatred, condemnation, performance-obsession, image-management, and general finger-wagging, the bloody edge of the endless list-making and to-doing.
We have searched the catalogs for all our helps at a better life and found all of them wanting, leaving us—by definition—help-less, helpless, helpless. If God helps those who help themselves, then there is no help coming, neither from heaven or from earth. We spend our holidays searching every nook and cranny for the right actions, the right behaviors, the right living to justify the holly jolly, and like a Grinched Who-ville living room, no crumb of hope is to be found.
But if hope is what we are after, then helpless is where we begin. Not by contriving some false humility, but by paying attention to the hungering dark, the deep places for which that none of our holiday do-gooding is doing any good.
It’s easy to be scared of this feeling—acknowledging our frail attempts at better living. But in both our historical liturgy captured in the Book of Common Prayer, and in the Bible itself, the empty hands of failed efforts is where the holiday begins.
The first week of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer presents us with a not-so Christmas-y scene. Mark 13 is the text for this week, with all its prophecies of the end of the world, no one knowing the day or the hour. Jesus promises his disciples that “Heaven and Earth” as they know them will disappear within a generation. While American Christianity turned this passage into a mad-libs page of dystopian prophesy worthy of a 13-volume fantasy novel, the original readers would have heard it much differently.
Heaven and Earth as they knew it, those two halves of the cosmos from Genesis, met in one portal between God’s world and ours: the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish Temple was not just a really fancy church. The Holy of Holies within it was the only stable link between God’s world and ours, between the golden majesty of God’s rule, and our neighborhood dumpster fire. For Heaven and Earth to pass away was not the plot of a Michael Bay movie, it was the end of the Jewish national hope, their connection to God, and the only justification for their existence in the world. Jesus has spent the preceding chapters promising the end of the Temple’s symbolic role at the center of God’s revelation, knowing He would be its replacement.
A religion and a nation had been built around attending to this building, this fulcrum between God’s world and ours. Rules upon rules upon rules. A government sat upon the Temple’s shoulders, borne by the rule-following Jews of the time. What Jesus knew was coming, though He knew not when, was that this government built on catalogues of do-better-ness would soon pass away, at that the government, the rule by which His people would thrive—would soon be on His shoulders, He would be their wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.
Advent, when we are willing to see it clearly, is a reminder that built into all of our comforts of religion and financial security and stability is the threat of their demise. The Apocalypse is coming. All the worlds we build, like Mark 13 describes, are beautiful households missing their master, and we, the doormen in waiting, are merely keeping watch over this carefully crafted emptiness. When we settle into the truth quaking in our bones, the helplessness running through our veins, we know it to be true. We are all one medical diagnosis, one family emergency, one lost job away from the crises we have been scurrying to deftly about to avoid. We are all helplessness in the making, until we realize that in all our making there is helplessness too.
We feel shortcomings and feebleness of faith like familiar aches and we need no shouting preachers to remind us of how distant the arms of our Father seem. Our struggles, right at our finger tips; our fear, racing through our lungs is so much more near than we dared admit to our small group, lest we disrupt the weekly devotional.
Mark 13 is not a fantasy novel but an illustration of how much our undoing is knocking at our doors, how much we’ve done to stop it, and how we thought we’d be farther along by now. There must have been moments that the Jews looked up at that big building on the hill and wondered: how is that stack of stone any hope at all? So it is with us, we have so many days of looking at our jobs, our churches, our relationships, our plans for a better life and can’t help but wonder—how is that stack of stuff any hope at all?
Jesus’ analogy of the doorkeeper waiting at the master’s empty house reaches out to us through history, giving us clues on where hope comes from. Yes, our hope is Jesus, but our ability to recognize him starts with an attention game. By seeing, feeling and recognizing His absence. By abandoning our hope-by-force strategies. By standing in the door of our empty-feeling hearts and like a doorkeeper at our most beloved person’s home. All of this hope is seen in light of Him, He who is throwing this Temple mountain into the sea and our conception of Heaven and Earth with it. While all our catalogues for a better life burn, His perfect face glows in the radiant light.
The Attention Game
Jesus’ leaves in Mark 13 with one big idea: “Pay attention.”
Pay attention to what? To the burning dumpster fires around us? To the quaking anxiety we feel or the rage at our inability to do better? To the list of failed attempts at making good children, good companies, good churches, good lives… where all we see is the many thousand ways we missed the mark? We must begin by seeing how we’ve shopped endlessly from the catalogues for a better life, and found ours wanting once again. The stack of stuff and stone where we’ve put our hope is going to fall.
Pay attention to that feeling deep in the gut that makes you reach and strive. Pay attention to that longing for the house you oversee wouldn’t feel so empty, the job you work wouldn’t be so hollow, the parenting you attempt wouldn’t ring such a clanging gong. Pay attention, not to the failures of the worlds you’ve built, but that deep inner wisdom that recognizes their insufficiencies.
Pay attention to the sound in your gut which says “there must be more than this.” Pay attention to the hunger which seems to never cease within you and the pain for which you haven’t found a suitable medication. Pay attention not to the falling apart of the world, but to the longing for a world that doesn’t fall apart. Stand at the door of your house, your city, your family, your life and watch.
The hunger in the dark you feel, the silence in the noise you cannot shake, is the beginning of Good News. It is only in the helplessness we cannot shake that a Temple rises within us. A holy hollow in which the chorus of Jesus Himself finds its sound. Advent begins with attention to the hollow, it begins with the threats of prophets from time immemorial that all we’ve built will fall, that our religions and our nations and our national religions will cave into themselves like a dying sun, and in all of this there is endless hope: because when all else falls, Jesus remains.
When I was a kid, God helps those who help themselves wasn’t the only lesson I learned. I also learned when it all comes down… Jesus, only Jesus. When I was a child and as an adult when my childish ways held me still I believed God rampaged about the darkened world so that He wouldn’t have any competition. As I have aged I am learning the deeper truth. We build things: families, churches, businesses, homes, as empty cavities in the world. Hollows for hope. And on their own they will cave into themselves in apocalyptic fire of trouble and strife.
But when we pay attention to the emptiness, when we see it as the holy hollow, we realize that we are not there alone. We are standing, sitting, lying, crying, singing, hoping, alongside Him who fills everything in every way. When we pay attention we will see that the One we’ve been chasing around the holidays trying to find, has been holding us all along. The emptiness that feels like a tomb, is a womb and we are the new creation growing inside.
Advent is the Christian New Year because it reminds us that in our tenderness is our strength. In our helplessness is our hope. As we attend to the deep sensation that we are lost in the world without some grand intervention of a mighty God, we become attuned to God’s definition of grandeur: the innocence of a child, the dependency of a New Born, the light of the world in the tarnish of human skin. We are cross-ward, as a people, always headed to the undoing of our great doings, and the resurrection of the best of our hearts in the wake.
I hope you and I, together, can shed the impulse to turn the holiday into an extension of the secular New Year’s pressurization. I hope we can put down the catalogs of a better life. I hope we can abandon the lie that hope only comes by force. And I hope that in our helplessness, we are strong.