For Christians, Advent, those four Sundays a year devoted to preparing for the celebration of the birth of Christ is one of the most serious and sacred of all the seasons of the Christian calendar. However, for the culture at large, Advent unofficially marks the kickoff for the most festive holiday season of the year. With Halloween and Thanksgiving finally out of the way, nothing now to impede the all out surge toward Christmas and with all that involves-crowded shopping malls, office parties, open houses, family gatherings, gifts to buy and wrap, greeting cards to get out, decorations galore, Handel's Messiah, Rudolph, manger scenes, Santa Claus, and all the rest of it, as children and adults alike tear around with various visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. It is surely one of the most delightful, if frenetic, times of the year; and while Christmas appropriately should be celebrated with exceeding great joy, including dancing and singing, feasting, and the sharing of gifts, there is, it seems, a kind of uneasiness, almost an embarrassment, that hovers unspoken over much of the frivolity of Christmas this year. I have in mind the stark disconnect between the vision of God's peace portrayed throughout the scriptures and the news we observe every day and night on the television screen.
There was a commercial recently which I am afraid betrays all too accurately the dominant attitude of our culture. The ad flashed on the screen a dreamy vision of a sparkling new bicycle; and a child's voice off camera is heard, "Oh, I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas. I hope to get a bicycle for Christmas-and peace on earth, of course-but I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas." Captured in the commercial, of course, is every child's legitimate yearning for a bicycle. Surely we all remember. Only remember also, though the voice from the screen is a child's voice, the commercial was created by and for adults..."and peace on earth of course...but I really hope...."
It is not a new disconnect. Even when the old prophet Isaiah spoke the words of the text a century or so before the birth foretelling the day to come when "people would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more," even in those days the world was a violent, war-torn and dangerous place. For that matter in the New Testament as well, as Luke tells it on the night of the birth itself, even as the heavenly hosts sang in exultation, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and goodwill toward all," there was no peace on earth and very little goodwill toward all.
Well, everyone knows the obvious answer, seldom said, but we all know the idea of beating spears into pruning shears or, for that matter, angelic hosts singing hymns while hovering in the eastern sky-we all know that is poetry, metaphor at best, wishful thinking at worst-but a bicycle now, a bicycle is real, chrome handlebars and rubber tires. So, of course, we can pray for peace on earth, but what we really, really want is something we can get our hands on and our heads around. It is the ageless conflict between the endless emotional and intellectual disconnect between what is real and what is whimsy. And let's face it, during these frenzied days leading up to the holiest night of the year, the winner is whimsy. I know it's trite to say it, but the Christmas emphasis in our culture really has evolved into a day primarily for the children with, of course, a lot of poetry and pageantry, nostalgia, and masterpiece theatre sentimentality for the adults as well, but mostly, a lot of play time and make believe. Now, I'm a grandfather and I enjoy the magical enchantment Christmas holds over our culture as much as anyone, even the much beleaguered church school Christmas pageant I find delightful. But everyone knows those middle schoolers dressed in bath robes and angel wings are not the real story. Now this is no attempt to put an Ebenezer Scrooge kibosh on our Christmas festival, but it is an attempt to encourage a time out, a mental intermission in the midst of the Christmas extravaganza and to raise the deeper religious question which lies just beneath the surface of all that is going on these days. Because truth is, our culture is awash in a giant debate over what constitutes reality. After all, what is this current rage over reality shows on television if not an acceptable way in a secular world to raise the deeply theological question, "What is real in this world anyway?"
I wonder if you were as stunned as I was reading the comment recently made by one political advisor advocating war, who observed that the world does not work the way it used to-nothing new there-only this contemporary prophet went on to declare, "We are an empire now and when we act (speaking of our country), we are an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality."
Well, at least that frames the debate, doesn't it? Who determines reality? The prophets of peace or the prophets of war, which brings us back to the text, to old vision-minded Isaiah, who perceived reality as a time and a place where people would trade in their swords and spears for plows and pruning hooks, and nations will study war no more. Well, we know that is poetry, and don't you know that old Isaiah knew that was poetry, just as we know those little 4th-grade girls in the Christmas pageant singing "Peace on earth and good will toward all" know that is not exactly the real world in which we live. But the point of Advent is do not dismiss vision as irrelevant. Don't write off biblical proclamation as fantasy.
Fred Buechner reminds us that truth rides in many carriages and God's truth is, of course, a primary case in point. After all, what is biblical prophecy but the revelation of truth through poetry, through imagination and vision. It was poet William Carlos Williams who admitted, "It is difficult to get the news from poetry...yet people die every day from lack of what is found there." And another Nobel poet Seamus Heaney who speaks of poetry as that literary device that enables us to cross from one dimension of reality to another. No, in a search for truth, don't write off poetry, vision, and imagination as unreliable or impractical.
I heard a fellow tell of a conversation with an aged Hopi Indian woman in Arizona. "Tell me about your children," he said. "Well, I have two sons. One is a dreamer, the other more practical. One is an engineer; the other is a poet. The poet is the practical one." Maybe it has always been so, but surely in our time with civilization more divided over issues of war and peace, over dominance and freedom than ever before, the debate over what constitutes reality has taken on more urgency than in recent times. Over simplified, but boiled down, it becomes an argument between fact and faith, which is to raise the question, "Are there not some truths, some values, some realities, beyond those which can be quantified by the rational and the pragmatic?"
Timothy Luke Johnson, who teaches at Emory's Candler School of Theology, comments on the words of the Apostle Paul, "We look not at what can be seen but what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary and what cannot be seen is eternal." And then Professor Johnson adds, "Faith does not know a different world from the one measured and calculated by science, but it knows the same world differently."
And so it is every year about this time. The culture turns up the volume and steps up the pace, extending the shopping days and stretching the check book to the limits in order to be ready when the big day comes; and all of that this year against the background roar of war for which we seem to have no solution and see no end. Yet every year for those who have ears to hear and hearts to trust, over the din of all our sophisticated machines of commerce and warfare, there is heard the voice of the moldy old prophet announcing a day to come when people will study war no more. And if one listens even more intently, there can be heard the songs of a heavenly host singing halleluiahs to celebrate the birth of the one who came to promise peace on earth and to point us toward that time when people will, in fact, study war no more, and there will be good will toward all.
Remember Ruby Bridges, the little six-year old who was one of the first African-American children to integrate the New Orleans public schools. If you remember those days, it went on for weeks and then months, as every morning the federal marshals would escort Ruby through the lines of angry parents hurling insults, racial slurs, violent words. And then the same every afternoon when school let out, until finally virtually every white family had withdrawn their children from the school. So Ruby went to school all by herself for the better part of the term. The situation caught the attention of Robert Coles, Harvard child psychologist. And so Coles went to New Orleans, interviewed and spent time with Ruby and with her parents. He interviewed her teacher, asked how she thought Ruby could tolerate such continual adversity and abuse. Listen to the verbatim from that teacher: I was standing in the classroom looking out the window. I saw Ruby coming down the street with the federal marshals on both sides of her. The crowd was there shouting as usual. A woman spat at Ruby, but missed. Ruby smiled at her. A man shook his fist at her. Ruby smiled. And then she walked up the steps, and she stopped and turned around and smiled one more time. You know what she told one of those marshals? She told him she prays for those people, the ones in that mob. She prays for them every night before going to sleep." The interview prompted Coles to speak directly to Ruby about her prayers. "Yes," Ruby said, "I do pray for them." Coles asked, "Why? Why would you pray for people who are so mean to you and say such bad things about you?" "Because Mama said I should." Coles pressed. Ruby said, "I go to church. I go to church every Sunday, and we're told to pray for people, even bad people. Mama says it's true. My minister says the same thing. 'We don't have to worry,' he says. He came to our house, and he say, 'God is watching over us.' He say, 'If I forgive the people and smile at them and pray for them, God will keep a good eye on everything and he'll protect us.'" Coles asked if she thought the minister was on the right track. "Oh, yes," Ruby said. And then in a way of explanation, "I'm sure God knows what is happening. God's got a lot to worry about, but there's bad trouble here. God can't help but notice. He may not do anything right now, but there will come a day, like they say in church, there will come a day. You can count on it. That's what they say in church."
There will come a day, like for us, even now, with only sixteen days to wait, the day will come and we shall join the world in full celebration of the annual Christmas ritual, praising God and singing with the angelic hosts, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will toward all." It is our habit. It is our tradition. It is our annual ritual. It is our most joyous, most hopeful-and while some will say the most whimsical-others contend it is the most real and the most revealing time of the year.
Dana Gioia is America's director of the National Endowment for the Arts, a poet himself. Gioia has written a poem about the appropriateness, indeed the urgency of our celebrated rituals. I share only the last stanza:
Praise to the rituals that celebrate change Because it is not the rituals we honor, But our trust in what they signify. So let us be touched with astonishment at learning something new And dream of a future so fitting and so just that our desire will bring it into being.
What is Christmas, if it is not a dream, a vision, a promise of peace on earth so fitting and so just that our desire will bring it into being?
Let us pray.
Forgive, O God, for ever thinking of peace on earth only as a Christmas postscript. Contemporize, we pray, your incarnation for us in our time. As the Savior's birth once startled an ancient world, so startle us with the reality of your presence in our midst. As your word first brought shepherds and magi to their knees in adoration and caused the angelic hosts to sing your praises, so may our celebration this season be marked by humility, praise, and hope. Break through, we pray, the hardened crust of cynicism and disbelief, and open before our trusting eyes the full splendor of the Christmas story in all of its fullness, a promise of joy and peace. Suspend our sophistication long enough to enable us to see the world as a place where miracles do happen, where a Savior is born in a stable, where peace is possible, promises abundant for all, and where there is no longer any reason for fear anywhere on earth. And so, O God, may your word become flesh anew in today's world, to dwell among us, assuring us that no fear or sorrow, sin or suffering can ever separate us from your love, and that no enemy of your purposes will ever ultimately prevail. Amen.