O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
If you were a curious spiritual seeker wandering through the menu of ways to nourish or deepen your faith, what would you think if you picked up the Revised Common Lectionary to find that this reading from Isaiah is the first reading of this new Church Year? If discovering more about spirituality is another task on your list of "self-help" or "self-improvement" goals, you might be tempted to look quickly away from the scripture readings and pull out some of the more sentimental resources like "The Christmas Box" by Richard Paul Evans, or "The Gift of the Magi" by O.Henry.
Even if you have lived in total isolation and never heard of Christmas, you will quickly get the general message of the season from any good "Christmas Book". Bookstores offer an abundance of resources that will touch your heart. They readily stimulate love, generosity and good will towards others. Although they may begin with hints of human need or isolation they don't portray the kind impending disaster that the scripture lessons depict. (That's what makes them easy!)
Why subject ourselves to words of doom and gloom...pain and peril...end of time? Why not just let the Christmas books do their work? Let's get on with the warmth and the joy and the abiding sense of love, you might say! I can purchase the book, read it in an hour, be moved by its sentiment and know that human kindness is still possible! I can even risk shedding a tear or two to appreciate the abiding power of human love. That would be much easier than spending weeks dwelling on "end of time" portraits. And it would be a whole lot more manageable than spending almost a full month watching, waiting and delaying festivities.
But Christmas is not about an occasional spurt of goodness that can be taken out at one's convenience. It is not something that is prepackaged or ready made.
Christmas takes time to unfold. It takes time to clear away our preoccupation with prosperity, "good life" and human power. It takes time to notice the deep yearnings of the human spirit for divine love that stretches the seams of the fabric of ordinary life.
Advent worship is the precursor to Christmas' glory. The Advent Readings are part of the reverberating words that open the soul to God's action in Christ. So every year at this time the church gathers around the readings that remind us of the conditions that would prevail if we were left to our own resources. We gather first around the daunting descriptions of the progression of events that was halted by the inbreaking of Emmanuel, God with us! We spend time contemplating the many ways we wander and stumble. The community of faith knows that the practice of remembering the perilous nature of human life is part of what prepares US for Christmas.
This process isn't intended to overwhelm us in guilt and shame. Rather, it functions to heighten our desire for the gift that approaches us again and again -- the gift of love bestowed in abundance upon all. It functions to dissolve our notion that the transformation of the heart, mind and soul is something that is possible by "self-help".
We gather together as children gather at the feet of a storyteller. "Once upon a time the people wandered in the darkness of brokenness and sorrow. They were scattered and isolated as the world gained momentum towards destruction." We know how the story turns out, but we stand tiptoed and cup-eared to hear it once again.
It is the greatest story ever told. It is the story that is the source of every subsequent Christmas story ever written.
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