Sunday, December 02, 2012

Defining Necessity - 1st Sunday of Advent 2012

Luke 21:25-36

As the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words".  I was recently moved by a photograph making its rounds on the Internet.  On the left is a photo of starving children with distended bellies and skeletal arms reaching out for food distribution (we've all seen these images on TV and in other media appeals for money).  On the right is a photo of what we have all probably seen before as well - and wisely chose to run for our lives when we saw it! -  a "Black Friday" sale mob with angry-faced people in the "mad dash" carrying more "stuff" in their arms and shopping carts than any one person or even family could possibly need.  The montage was entitled, "Define Necessity".

I guess necessity is relative to each individual because it can surely be said that what you may deem to be necessary I might consider a luxury; something nice to have but something that will not substantially affect the quality of life one way or the other.  I think we can agree that food and clean drinking water are universal necessities though we might disagree about what is considered adequate food.  Remember the ancient Israelites were sufficiently fed with manna (virtually flavorless bread) on the journey to the Promised Land, but they soon grew tired of the same ol' thing day after day.  When they finally revolted with their unreasonable demand, they were sharply reminded through the Lord's wrath that genuine necessity is NOT relative to individual desires or even mob demands but that cravings could be our undoing especially if we bite the hand that is already feeding us (Numbers 11:31-34).

No matter how we define necessity for ourselves, however, one thing is clear: we will never be able to reach consensus on necessity apart from the Lord's own definition of what we truly "need".  We base our "needs" on what it takes to live from day to day according to a freely chosen lifestyle - however simple or elaborate.  Yet from the beginning our Lord has tried to teach us that our only real "need" is for Him in our lives.  Surrendering to that, we will find our true needs met - IF we are willing to trust our Lord to that extent.  That, dear friends, is the continuing challenge for the Church especially during the season of Advent - probably better known as the "Christmas shopping season".

In a recent conversation, I recalled an Advent practice at the church in which I grew up.  The Nativity was set up in the church for Advent, but the Christ child was not placed into the manger until the Christmas Eve Mass.  Over the years, however, I have come to question that practice because I have discovered Advent is much more than a count-down to Christmas; in fact I would question the validity of Advent to that end.  The best ideal of Advent is not exclusively the anticipation of that Sacred Moment when Christ CAME; rather it is now for the faithful more about when Christ will COME again "in a cloud with power and great glory" - for the term "advent" is based on a Latin word which means "coming" - NOT "done come"!  That Messiah was born is a certainty, but that moment will not be repeated just as the Crucifixion will not be repeated because as the Letter to the Hebrews challenges us, how many times would we demand our Lord to go to the Cross for sins from which we refuse to repent (6:1-8)?  Of course, we've made it a little easier for ourselves actually with a little help of the Church; we've redefined sin "according to a freely chosen lifestyle" in the name of "grace".

It is far better that we heed our Lord's words in Luke's gospel: "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life [so that the Day of the Lord does not] catch you unexpectedly, like a trap".  Clearly Jesus is not referring to that "Day" as the day He was born, yet the Church does well to mark and remember that blessed day with extreme reverence and thanksgiving.  However, we must always have our hearts and minds geared toward our next certain reality: His imminent return.

Advent is not an either/or preparation period when we get to choose what we will celebrate, and sometimes I think it is unfortunate that in the Church calendar Advent immediately precedes Christmas simply because of what it has become.  There is the Remembrance, of course, because it is a given that when the blessed day of our Lord's Birth is upon us, we will mark the time hopefully in worship, hopefully in reverence, and hopefully not in a period of self-indulgence, pagan practices that have been "normalized" over the centuries, and crushing debt by having bought for ourselves and our loved ones things we have managed to live - so far - sufficiently and very well without. 

When we teach our children about the "hope" we share, the "the hope that is within us" (1 Peter 1:15)  especially during Advent, do we teach them by the Christmas Count-down to "hope" they get more stuff than their friends?  Do we teach them to "hope" Santa will pay a visit with that coveted toy or gadget everyone has been talking about?  Or do we use this blessed season of Remembrance AND Anticipation to remind them of our mystery of faith; that "Christ will come again"?  Hopefully it is the latter (though current practice indicates the former) because this, my dear friends, is the only genuine Hope the Church has left.  This is precisely the Hope Jesus refers to in Luke's gospel, and this Hope has nothing to do with Christmas.

"End Times" theology sounds more foreboding than it is.  In fact I ran across an article recently in which people from NASA spoke about the so-called Mayan calendar count-down.  It was pointed out that even though this cataclysmic event is NOT going to happen as so many fear, it is that so many young people have been pushed into a state of utter hopelessness and listlessness because life no longer has meaning beyond December 21.  They are genuinely "afraid" of this Mayan thing because they do not know of the Hope we share in Christ.  And friends, I assure you, Santa will not, does not, CANNOT deliver that kind of hope, and it is NOT available on a store's shelf!

Jesus does teach that "people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken" (Luke 21:26).  This sounds profoundly foreboding, but what can we gather from this that sounds any less so, any less "fearsome"?  Could it be these "people" to whom Jesus refers are exactly those who do not know Him and never did?  Could it be these "people" to whom Jesus refers are fearful because they have no hope?  Could it be these "people" to whom our Lord refers are those "people" who have finally come to realize that the thousands of dollars they spent on junk at Christmas was really not "all that"?  I think maybe this image Jesus conveys would always evoke fear in the simple-minded and the faithless and the hopeless - and certainly children!  It does not sound good AT ALL!

Look again, however, and look with your hearts and minds wide open!  For Jesus continues: "When these things begin to take place, STAND UP and RAISE YOUR HEADS ... because your redemption is drawing near."   This is the good stuff, brothers and sisters!  "Your redemption is drawing near!" 

This means that soon - but perhaps not soon enough for us - we will no longer have to read stories in the newspapers about a child abused by a trusted adult.  This means that soon - and perhaps not soon enough for us - we will no longer have to read about a child in a strange land who was beheaded because she refused an arranged marriage to an older man according to strange, man-made customs.  This means that soon - and probably not soon enough for us - we will no longer have to listen to senseless politicians trying to claim and play the role of "messiah"!  This means that soon - and absolutely not soon enough for us - we will have all doubts and all fears and all anxieties cast aside - "for [our] redemption is drawing near!"

This is what Advent prepares us for.  This is our Hope!  And this "season", such as it is, must never end - because it certainly DOES NOT culminate at Christmas!  Of course we can hope and work for better days or bigger paychecks or newer cars or nicer homes, but none of these things are listed anywhere in the Holy Scriptures as sources of "joy unspeakable" and "full of glory"!  None of these things are mentioned anywhere in the Holy Scriptures as the sources of our "redemption"!  None of these things will last any longer than the generations before us that are long gone and soon forgotten.  None of these things will enhance (but can certainly inhibit) our Journey of Faith because none of these things, at their very core, can be construed as "necessary".  These are all culturally argumentative, of course, but spiritually and theologically they are not even in the ball park.

But by reasonable means, let us enjoy our lives, but let us not neglect the fellowship of the Church!  For our God is the God of Life and of Living - and living well as a community.  Life itself is a Divine Gift by which we are reminded not only of the limits of our humanity and our need for our Savior, but we are also reminded in daily living what really matters, what we truly need - if we would look beyond the Christmas Tree.  He is Christ our Lord, Christ our Savior, Christ our Redeemer.  He is Emmanuel, "God with us", and His time is near.  Amen.    

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