Advent is here. And I’m not sure I can make it through the season. That’s because I am growing impatient with a certain Advent sin often committed in the name of God in our churches. I have repented of this sin, but the fact I badly needed to repent of it tells me I will probably have to repent of it again, and so I am not exempting myself from my own warning about it. Just so that you know…
I would call it a pet peeve, but it’s more than an irritation arising from a personal preference or conviction. It’s more like a theological disquiet, even a bewilderment, an uneasy sense that we forget ourselves and the gospel when we routinely rant about the consumerist society in which we live, and by implication, deride and condemn everyone who participates in pre-Christmas ceremonies of buying and selling. I’m simply getting tired of listening to sermons in Advent that draw a sharp line between the bad world of getting and spending which barely acknowledges or even notices the reason for the season, and another good world in which none of that goes on and into which Jesus can be born properly, cleanly, to the sound of angels singing, not cash registers ringing.
Too often I’m left feeling shamed and abandoned by the church in this season, because I’m a human being like the ones I hear derided from the pulpit. I may not line up at 12 midnight on Black Friday, but I do get all caught up in commercialism and I am needy and I do want things and I do feel pressure to spend and I am certainly no Virgin Mary in Advent, rapt in pregnant contemplation in the quiet candlelight of my room during these four weeks. And if I, being a committed religious professional and all, feel shamed and condemned by anti-consumerist, world-deriding sermons, I can only imagine how it feels to a secular person who wanders into the pews to be told with divine authority that their secularity has rendered them unfit for Christmas.
Pray tell, dear preachers, where is that ‘other world’ in which people are pure and focused on the heart of the matter? (Certainly it’s not the church, which is as busy and as unfocused in this season as any heedless secularist or frantic shopper bent on the latest gadget at a door-busting price. Let the one who is without sin cast the first Christmas tree ornament.) Which world is it in which people do not need or want or try to get and try to please and try to make themselves feel better and try to escape the inevitability of their deaths? Is any of us who preaches against that bad world a citizen of some other country? No, because there is no such other world. There is only this one. And we are this world too. And we had better be. Because it is the world in which God finds us. God won’t find us anywhere else, so we ought not try to go someplace else, or lead others astray either, by telling them that the so-called secular, consumerist, commercially driven world is bad and wrong, or soon to be forsaken by God if we don’t shape up and stop buying things and having wild holiday parties.
It’s the world we have, the world we are given; and it’s a world of human creatures full of longings deep and powerful, longings for God, I would say, but so overlaid with weakness, frailty and the nagging effects of sin that we fix ourselves on needs and things that are not God. Things that are not against God, mind you; just not God. And because they are not God, our desires cannot be wholly satisfied by them. And so we keep going after other things and acquiring more things (you know how this goes—it’s your story too). But to say it is un-Christian to live like this is simply wrong. To say we have fallen into the hands of some consumerist Satan and are screwing everything up is wrong; even more, it is to miss the deeper drama. The drama God sees, the drama in which the Incarnation is the daring protagonist, the drama in which God and humans and all creatures are unaccountably finding each other, groping weirdly in the human dark by the light of desires great and small, guided and misguided, but desire for each other all the same.
It’s also wrong to imply further, as many do, that the things we lust after are bad. The things we want and need, even the things we lust after and don’t need, are not bad. Things are not bad. Materiality is not bad. Being material people is not bad and wrong. This is the way we were made, of stuff. God loves stuff. How many times do we have to be told? How much gospel do we need announced to us? And just how do we Christians who rant against stuff in Advent propose to bring people out of this bad consumerist world of stuff into that other world of purity and goodness when the very God we preach in Advent is working against us by incarnating in the world we seem to despise? Our God wants into the world we want out of—the messy, nasty, consumerist, commercial, over-sexed, greedy world is the world God loves. Remember that? Not condemns, but loves. It’s this world Jesus enters, because God loves it; and it’s in this world he lives and spends his last coin of compassion on us—this world, not some other. And it’s this world he will come again in glory to judge with a compassion so great we cannot imagine it, and because we can’t, we substitute our own judgments for his. (Ours are invariably harsh. His, invariably merciful.)
And why, at precisely the season when people are paying attention to the Story of a savior, of God’s love, of peace and justice and love—when secular people are paying attention, in their own Muzak, Hallmark, Santa Claus kind of way; not the way we might want them to, not necessarily in a churchy sort of way; but paying attention to the Story nonetheless, and with hearts softened towards it too—are we deriding them just for being people with great (if misdirected) desires, and driving them away with our anti-world rants? Isn’t it ironic that in the season of Incarnation we tell people from our pulpits that it is not okay to be fleshy? That it is wrong to want and need?
Instead of teaching people gently to order their every want and need to God so that they can live a life of want and need with gusto; instead of carefully and patiently unwrapping for them the truth of Augustine’s daring command: “Love, then do what you want,” we take these hearts that come to us longing to love in a headlong, heedless way (although right now they only know how to do it with things, which is a start, but only a start), and tell them they need to shrivel up and narrow down and set aside those lusts so that they can be truly “spiritual.” There is no such thing as “spirituality” for Christians, at least not without a robust body-ality to go with it. The hardest thing for us is not to become spiritual, after all—escapists have been doing that forever—but to become fully embodied and fully human.
And even if everything I say here is theologically full of shit, it doesn’t even make good church growth sense to get everybody in (church attendance almost always increases during Advent and Christmastide) just to ream everybody out. It’s one thing to take seriously the preacher’s duty to prick the conscience and provoke a change of heart; it’s quite another to take a world full of human desire, a church full of longing hearts—frenzied and misguided to be sure, but good, very good—and tell it to go to hell.
Advent is here. Please don’t tell me not to be human. And don’t tell God that some great cosmic mistake was made when God chose flesh, this world, and us, and pitched a tent among us.