Last Advent I posted a Facebook Note called “A Good Word for the World in Advent.” It got a lot of shares. But it did not, alas, change the world, or the church. Oh well.
In that piece, I argued that the church does itself no good when it rails against the world in this season, condemning and shaming ordinary people for shopping too much and failing to slow down long enough to recall ‘the reason for the season.’
To be sure, this posture vis-à-vis the world at Christmas aims to admonish and correct serious sins—consumerism and materialism, for example—but these are no more sins at Christmas than at any other time of the year. And yet we grow especially shrill about them at Christmas, which is supremely ironic, given how frantic the church itself usually is at this season, and how zeroed in on the mystery of the Incarnation the church claims to be during these weeks.
After all, I argued, the world the Babe is born into, the world God loves so much that God enters it in the flesh is not some hushed austere world where nobody gets and spends and everyone has time for contemplating the ‘real meaning’ of things. It is this world, our world, the one we condemn, but which God loves ‘so much…” that God gave us a Son, scripture says, not to condemn, but to save. A posture of judgment and a stance over against the world hardly evokes the infinite Compassion that takes on our materiality as his own in this season.
Besides, the consumerist and stress-dealing sins we decry in the run-up to Christmas are sins in which all of us are complicit, not just those frantic folks out there beating each other up in the XBOX aisle on Black Friday. There is much hypocrisy in the frantic busy church of this season, but that is not a new story either.
This is not to say that the church does not have a different picture of the way the world could be to show to people, or that we have no Good News for the harried and consumerist world of acquisition and greed—we do. Nor does it mean that we ought not attack the systems and arrangements by which an unfettered profit motive creates and sustains real spiritual and material damage. Nor does it mean that we have no right to speak a word of admonishment about the way things are now.
My point is only that if and when we admonish, it should be from a posture of humility, with previous self-examination, so that we are the ones we are admonishing every bit as much as “them” out there. And it must be framed in a rhetoric of immense empathy and compassion for all the human wounds on full display in this season, the waywardness of the sheep, if you will, for whose healing the church exists, and for whom there can be no merciless judgment, only a merciful setting out to find and bring back home.
If you want to read that piece, you can find it on this blog. Look for it in the Advent resources category. Today I want to add another question to the questions I pose there.
Does the shrill tone we tend to take in this season betray an unconscious sense of entitlement? When we complain that consumerism has hijacked Christmas, for example, are we claiming that Christmas is or ought to be untouchable, just as Sunday morning worship should be untouchable, exempt from incursions from soccer leagues?
In other words, does the church think it has some sort of inherent right to be heard and heeded out there, that its ‘stuff’ should be given pride of place and cultural privilege? Are we just all bummed out because nobody else seems to think so and is paying us no mind, going on with business as usual, while we fulminate over here in the corner, year after year?
Are we—yes, even us progressives—still operating out of a ‘Christendom’ mentality in which we expect the culture to play by our rules, and heel when we give the command?
Those days are long gone, of course; so maybe instead of railing against the world at Christmas, the church would be better off in Advent imitating its savior—and that means not remaining aloof or setting ourselves against the world, but rather entering it, entering it more fully and more open-heartedly and more compassionately than ever; and there, among the tinsel and the eggnog, the XBOXES and the maxed out credit cards, feel in our own body the terrible suffering of the captive consumer and their aching desire for lasting gifts
Maybe we’d be better off not insisting on our rights, but opening ourselves instead to experiencing the Lord’s humiliation—the experience of being small and ignored and impotent, having relinquished all status and privilege, and having ‘laid aside the glory that was his.’ Maybe this is the season for laying aside the glory that was ours.
If we must stand against the world this season, why not stand against that world in which the church was a really big deal for all the wrong reasons? Why not choose instead to be compassionate companions of the beleaguered materialist consumer in the real world where such companionship with the suffering always brings more salvation than all the shrill cries of “Bad! Bad! Wrong! Wrong!” ever could.