Let’s Be Done with One Night Stands: Christmas and Our Divine Love Affair

Confession: I am a Christmas music junky. Halfway through November, I begin to patiently wait for Black Friday when it becomes socially acceptable to blare the season’s tunes ad nauseam for a month, including the occasional Hanukah jam (shout out to those Maccabees). I really love Christmas music, whether it be cheesy crooner songs about being snowed in with a lovely companion, or the richer, more vibrant hymns, like “O Holy Night.” If there is one thing that causes me to stumble through contemplating the sober Advent season, it is all that cheery Christmas music.

So imagine my disappointment as I climbed into my truck to leave my in-laws’ house at 10:34pm on Christmas Day: I turned on what had been my Christmas radio station for over thirty days, only to hear a late 80’s pop song that wasn’t WHAM!’s “Last Christmas.” That’s right, folks. December 25 wasn’t even officially over and the radio had moved on to its normal programming. How quickly we rush past Christmas…

It is almost as if the Advent season acts as four weeks of pent-up, Yuletide foreplay in which we try to open presents early (but not too early!) because we just can’t wait for Christmas morning! Then comes the climax of Christmas morning and with a flurry of wrapping paper and spilt coffee, it is all over and all we want to do is go to sleep. As my dear Grammy used to say every December 25 around 7:30am, “You wait this long, and it’s all over in 20 minutes.”

Our one night stand with Christmas is sad. For those churches in the Christian tradition that abide by the Western liturgical Church calendar, there are 12 Days of Christmas (go on, sing it to yourself). Christmas morning is only the beginning of a longer celebration. After all, if we’ve spent Advent waiting in contemplation and anticipation, why burn up all of Christmas in a half hour?

Not only does the Christian Tradition celebrate Christmas for twelve days, but Advent marks the beginning to the Church calendar. That’s right–Christian New Year begins with contemplation and longing for four weeks. Yet Christmas marks the end of that anticipation and the new beginning of God’s indwelling in Creation, physically present in the Cosmos in the person of Jesus Christ!

Christmas isn’t a one night stand with prolonged waiting and climactic release. Christmas is the beginning of a year long love affair with the Divine! And that love affair brings with it the stillness of Lent, the pain of Good Friday, the joy of life and reunion at Easter, and the invigoration and passion of Pentecost! The incredible beauty of the Church calendar is that it encompasses the rhythms of our relationship with God. Not only that, the rhythm is a seasonal glimmer and reminder of all the redemptive work that is soaking and permeating all of Creation, from planet Earth to the farthest unknown reaches of the universe and beyond.

Yet if this rhythm is a reminder of God’s redemptive work in history, why do we experience or witness so much pain, suffering, grief, and horror? Is this rhythm detached from the way the world is? Is God good or is the rhythm a lie?

For those of us of the Christian faith, I think the Church calendar from Advent through the Ordinary Time is structured to remind that God is good, and that God is at work. It isn’t there for us to evaluate if God is fulfilling His promise, but to prompt us to return to the movements of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love that occur in spite of the trials and tribulations of our lives and times.

Maybe Advent introduces us to these essences over four weeks not because Christmas means the end of anticipation. Maybe Advent walks us through Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love because Advent is a summation of the rhythm that we move to, well beyond the season of Christmas. It is a prologue for the whole of the Western Church calendar!

Christmas is only the start of our journey with Christ. Nurture the Divine love affair.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts: I Wanna Know What Love Is

It’s almost here. In fact, by the time you read this, Christmas Day may already be upon us! (Is this week a double feature? Mayhaps!) And now our Advent(ure) of the last several weeks is near its conclusion. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, if your tradition adheres to the church calendar and practices Advent, you and your community lit the last candle. It was probably purple, and it is sometimes referred to as the Angel candle and it is for Love. From Hope to Peace, Peace to Joy, and now from Joy to Love.

I have stumbled through several ideas and partial drafts for this final edition of Advent(ure) Thoughts. What can I say of the Love of God regarding Christmas? We cling to Hope in desperation. We let Peace settle in our guts. And it seems that Joy gives us cause to celebrate. Then what of Love? Do we speak of the Incarnation? Do we speak of the Divine loving the created so much that God poured God’s self into humanity and mortality to be in community and fellowship with the created, only to be executed by it? Or offered up as an atoning sacrifice? To go there in the last week of Advent seems to me like jumping the gun.

After all, Advent is about the waiting. So what of Love in the waiting?

In Matthew 1:18, Joseph is planning to dismiss Mary in private. As far as Joseph is concerned, the woman he is supposed to marry is suddenly pregnant with someone else’s baby. Yet since a public dismissal may very well lead to Mary’s execution under Jewish law, Joseph decides to protect her from such a fate.

And then he has a dream. He has a dream where God’s plan is laid out before Joseph. The angel in the dream makes it clear that Mary hasn’t been sleeping around.  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (1:20). And now I only have questions. Did Joseph publicly claim the unborn child as his own, even though he and Mary weren’t yet married? Did he attempt to explain to everyone he knew “It’s not what you think. That’s God’s baby?” Surely Joseph and Mary hadn’t dodged the rumor mill entirely. How much scandal was Joseph being called to immersed in? Whatever the case though, Joseph is in deep and now will only press deeper into his love for Mary.

How much of the Love of Advent is reflective of Joseph’s love for Mary? “Joseph, just wait and see how I will deliver on my promise!” says God. “Your love for Mary pales in comparison to my love for my people!”

What if the Love of Advent is anticipating what Love is in store in Christ through examining, pondering, and cherishing the Love we already experience? I don’t know about you, but I often experience Love far more directly from my wife, parents, sister, or friends than I do from God. But when the Love of God is made known to me in ways that are unconventional and unexpected, sometimes to the extent of seeming supernatural, it’s overwhelming.

So maybe that’s what Love in Advent is about: Anticipating God pouring out Love in a way we can only remotely fathom.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts: On Joy (or)The Simpsons Meet Santa’s Little Helper

Tis the season for Christmas movies and television galore! Whether it be How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jingle All the Way, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart, many of us have our seasonal staples and classics that we burn through between Black Friday and New Year’s Day. But have you ever noticed that these films and television specials are often more like Advent stories building up to Christmas? They all bear the weight of anticipating that glorious Christmas morning, and the characters inevitably suffer many trials as they move closer and closer. Ever notice Christmas Vacation uses an Advent calendar to mark off the days until Christmas amidst the hijinks and mishaps of the Griswold Family Christmas? Surely Ralphie’s wait and anguish over that Red Rider BB gun in A Christmas Story is riddled with the hope that he will unwrap it, the peace that he can be okay without it, and the joy of finally getting to nearly shooting his eye out in the back yard. Of course, the Love is the family gathering around a peking duck for Christmas dinner while being serenaded with some heavily accented carols. But let’s not rush to Love yet. This is a time for Joy. Go light your Shepherd candle for Joy. It’s probably the pink one.

On December 17, 1989, the world was introduced to one of it’s new favorite television families in an episode call “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” The inaugural episode of The Simpsons tells the tale of a family who, like many, are financially cramped during the holiday season. Marge has scrimped and saved for gifts, while Homer anxiously awaits his Christmas bonus. However, the bonus never comes thanks to his boss Mr. Burns, and Marge must use all of her savings to have an unfinished tattoo removed from her 10 year old son, Bart. Lacking the heart to tell Marge that he will not receive his bonus, Homer becomes a mall Santa to earn some extra cash, only to make it out with $13 (after taxes, social security, costume costs, and Santa lessons). Homer’s last thread of hope of giving his family a Merry Christmas leads him and Bart to the race track where they bet it all on the promising grey hound, Santa’s Little Helper. The race is highly contested by all racers, except Santa’s Little Helper who comes in an embarrassing dead last. Homer and Bart are left with nothing. And yet they end up taking Santa’s Little Helper home. And inadvertently, they save Christmas! Marge describes it as the greatest gift because the dog is “something that can share our love, and frighten prowlers.” It is a touching scene. And it has something to teach us about the Joy of Advent.

As does Mary the Mother of Jesus. The Magnificat of Mary can be found in Luke 1:46-55. The mother of Jesus sings this wonderful song that proclaims the wonders of who God is and what God is doing in this miracle.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;

for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.”


Mary’s whole song overflows with the Joy of the unexpectedness of God’s ways. Because God being born as a baby, into poverty, to a single teenage mom is exactly that: unexpected. The God of the Most High becomes human through the lowly.

And it is this inversion of our expectations that should cause us great Joy. The Joy of Advent follows the Peace that comes from Hope, because the Joy should take us off guard. In Peace, we find ourselves susceptible to the unexpected. In the Peace of God’s promise, we are overcome with Joy when we realize that this Hope is coming from what the world desires to cast aside. Even Joseph desired to divorce Mary, albeit in secret, and needed the assurance of God to see the Joy in what was happening inside the woman he loved.

The Joy of Advent lies in that God is providing for the whole of the cosmos out of the lowliest of circumstances, much like the Joy the financially-broke Simpsons find in a race dog that can’t finish a race. If you’re a fan of the series, you know that Santa’s Little Helper is there to stay, and that the joy he brings to Bart, Lisa, and rest of the family is persistent. The Joy of Advent is persistent. And out of that Joy, we soon find Love. But that is for next week.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts/Minor Spoilers: The Peace of Dr. Strange

I know I am several weeks behind the film critics’ reviews on this one, but this past week I finally saw the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe… Dr. Strange. And it was good; easily one of my favorite films in the MCU, besides Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Yes, this post running double duty as… Advent(ure) Thoughts/ Minor Spoilers!

Dr. Stephen Strange is one of the world’s most talented neurosurgeons, and he knows it. The esteemed doctor lives the life of a New York City socialite, while having the privilege to pick and choose which patients to operate on. The result is that Dr. Strange has a perfect record because he never takes on patients that he believes he can’t successfully stitch up. Most importantly, the man cherishes his hands. His hands are what have made him the legendary surgeon we are introduced to in the film. But, when a car accident, brought about by his own hubris, results in severe, irreversible nerve damage to his hands, the reality sets in that he will never be able to perform surgery again. Strange exhausts every experimental treatment he can find. When he is unable to requisition the funds for these treatments, Strange embarks on a mystical journey to Nepal in search of an ancient miracle cure. Instead, he finds himself caught on a journey into deep mysticism, multiple realities, and immersed a war that threatens an entire multi-verse. Cool, trippy stuff.

Strange’s hands are the tools of his profession, the vessel of his prestige, and the fount of his pride. Once they are damaged, his whole life is thrown into uncertainty and chaos. The Doctor’s journey is to find peace. And at the outset, it seems the only thing that will bring him peace is reestablishing his identity as a supreme surgeon. But under the tutelage of Tilda Swinton’s superbly acted, Ancient One, Strange finds peace as he grows into the Sorcerer Supreme.

The second Sunday of Advent (by the time this is posted, it will have been two Sundays ago) is commemorated with the lighting of the Bethlehem Candle, or the candle of Peace. For those of you keeping track at home, we are in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Old Testament passage for Second Advent is Isaiah 1:1-10. If you’ve ever seen those cheesy water-colors in the church office of lions and lambs having a cuddle in the grass, that image is derived from Isaiah 1. Personally, my favorite bit is about a toddler playing with over the den of an asp or cobra. It’s loaded with connotations of the serpent in Genesis 3. Not only that, in antiquity, the “asp” was associated with the power and royalty of Egypt, from whom God liberated the Israelites. A Hebrew baby will play carefree in presence of those who oppressed and enslaved his or her ancestors. Crazy. And the crazy continues as the passage closes… “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

My last Adent(ure) Thought elaborated on why Hope was the first essence we take with us on the Advent journey, moving towards Christmas and the birth of Jesus. So why is Peace the next essence on the journey? I think it is because it is only through internalizing the Hope of Christ that we find Peace. If Hope is what spurns us forward with each weary step, then it is Peace that allows us to take those steps with composure and a sense of serenity. Isaiah’s image of peace should feed Hope, as it was intended to feed the Hope of God’s people in the face of impending exile. As Hope is fed, perhaps peace grows out of it. Not the cosmic Peace of reconciliation between oppressed and oppressor as witnessed in Isaiah, necessarily, but maybe it’s the inner peace of recognizing ourselves reconciled to God in and through Christ.
Dr. Stephen Strange only really starts to find the peace to his chaos when he becomes oriented outside of himself. While training and studying under the Ancient One, Strange’s world expands beyond his profession and prestige, beyond his hands. It becomes oriented to the needs and hurts of the cosmos. Spoiler alert: his hands are never restored to what they were. Yet he is more at peace than he was at the film’s start.

Perhaps this is what Paul means in his letter to the Philippians when he encourages them with “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7).

Take Hope. Go in Peace.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts: “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This.”

Ah! Advent! No longer Thanksgiving, but not yet Christmas. And the “not yet Christmas” part is important because Advent is about the anticipation of Christmas. It is about the waiting and anticipating of the birth of God enfleshed in Christ. It is looking forward to that point in the church calendar when the Creator burst into Creation as never before and in a way no one could predict. But let’s not jump ahead to stables and shepherds and angels. The anticipation comes with reflection and preparation. Over the next four weeks, I’d like to share some of my own reflections on this season in a series I like to call Advent(ure) Thoughts.

While some of us sit in contemplative anticipation of the birth of Christ, many youngsters (and some not-so-youngsters) anticipate something a little different this time of year: presents. And I have little doubt that video games are at the top of many of those Christmas lists (Confession: it’s on mine).

I have a love/hate relationship with video games. At best, they’ve been an elaborate, immersive medium through which I’ve experienced some wonderfully crafted narratives. At not-so-best, I’ve abused them as an escape from the responsibilities and pressures of reality. I’m sure I am not alone in this nerd-related tension.

I still remember the first video game I ever played. It wasn’t Pac-Man, or Duck Hunt. No, friends, the first time I fit my palms around the sharp corners of an NES controller, I the_legend_of_zelda_-_golden_catridgeventured into the land Hyrule with the lustrous, gold cartridge of The Legend of Zelda (circa 1986!). The one that started it all! It remains one of my favorite games of all time.

Here’s opening to the game.

If you didn’t pick up on it, that old man just gave the hero, Link, a wooden sword. A wooden sword!? How reassuring is that? “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” Not only are you, the player, still alone but you have a wooden to sword to fend off “danger.” Fabulous…

I once had a friend explain Advent to me this way: “Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter.”  It is about longing to see what God will do. The Advent wreath, given to us from the Lutheran tradition, marks each Sunday until Christmas with a candle that signifies a different element of the Advent journey (dare I say… the Advent-ure?). This past Sunday marks the lighting of the Prophet Candle, or the Candle of Hope.

The prophets in the Old Testament often wrote of hope. Not only that, they wrote of hope in the bleakest of circumstances. Most scholars agree that the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem in 586BCE. A whole people group became displaced and dispersed into a strange land that is not their own. Israel no longer resided in the Promised Land. The people of God were no longer home. Yet, the prophets write about Hope. Isaiah is the prophet most often quoted this time of year.

“and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.”
-Isaiah 2:4 (ESV)

Naive words for a man who has witnessed, and will continue to witness, the conquest of his people and the destruction of his home. How can Isaiah speak of the absence of war when war is consuming the prophet’s world?

I think it is because true hope, the hope we cling to with fathomless desperation, is often naive. And that is why hope can get you laughed at, or scoffed at.

But Hope is the first candle for a reason. Hope moves us forward. It keeps us lifting our heads off of the pavement and brushing the dirt from our knees.

Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer, writes “Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory” (77).

When we look towards Christmas and the birth of Christ because, first and foremost, there is the Hope of the world. The Hope for change. The Hope for the whole of the Cosmos to be as it was intended to be.

The funny thing about that wooden sword in The Legend of Zelda is that it’s your primary weapon for most of the game. Fighting monsters in a strange land with a wooden sword is ridiculous. Yet, when that is all you have, it becomes everything. It becomes the most important tool in your pack to persevere on your adventure. It becomes hope. You say to yourself, “If I have this, maybe I can still make it.”

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.

Take Hope.

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