‘Tis the Season, but What’s the Question? ©
by Rev. Jim Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org
So I find myself on the First Sunday of Advent in a church, let’s call it the cathedral church of an upper Midwest city, because it’s Thanksgiving weekend and it’s the annual gathering of one side of our families. To be familial we go to church. The priest begins his homily with the question, “Why can’t we maintain the spirit of this season all year round?” Then he proceeds, of course, to answer his own rhetorical offering.
It appears that his thought is that gift-giving and saying the annual nice things to others – you know, being in the spirit of the season – marks the standard for the run-up to Christmas. We try our best but it’s often too difficult, so we settle for one season to serve as a goad to our conscience all the rest of the year.
I sympathize with any homilist’s predicament at this time of year. The association of what passes for the Spirit of the Season in our world of glitz and marketing with the celebration of the Word made flesh is a trap. It’s a trap because every homilist wants to apply a connection between the Word and life, particularly the everyday variety of life. This trap exists because the connection between being sucked into the vortex of gift-buying for the sake of gift-giving and that of being aware that the gift of the Word made flesh – the Incarnation of Jesus – is really what matters, this connection does not exist. It is a failed analogy. It’s like fitting the greater thing into the lesser thing. As in, marriage is like handholding through life – nice thought, bad analogy.
Let’s try other questions for Advent.
Like, “Why do we believe that the weakness of God is the strength of God?” When we tell the story as it comes ‘round each year of the Word of God becoming human how is this narrative a show of weakness? Because we humans are weak. We do not act as we ought a lot of the time. We say and do things that we regret. Some humans hate other humans so much that they kill and do unspeakable violence in the name of only God knows what. A few humans have so much of this world’s goods and resources that they refuse to see that these things are only a trust to be shared. And then there are the humans who deny responsibility, let alone accountability, for climate change. Yes, we humans are a weak and pitiable lot. God becoming human is a weakness.
However, God becoming human in Jesus means there is an unbroken and permanent, one might say eternal, bond between God and us. The all-everything deity for no necessary reason takes on flesh. For this we have no gift to give in return because there is none, only response. The revelation of the Word that God’s love is stronger than any human love ennobles the weakest and most vile among us. It puts us forever in debt. It’s the reason Jesus gives all away. As we read in Philippians 2:6-7,
“Christ, though in the image of God,
didn’t deem equality with God
something to be clung to –
but instead became completely empty
and took on the image of oppressed
born into the human condition
found in the likeness of a human being.”
Or here’s another question. “Why is self-giving, some might say self-sacrificing, love, our way to life?” And some might also ask, “Why is this love the way to life that has no end?” Now we’re approaching the nub of the thing.
What is given, what philosophers call the givenness of the gift, is the human Jesus emptying self for the sake of all other humans. Theologians call it kenosis. The givenness of the self-emptying Jesus is Incarnation – Word becoming flesh so the flesh would share divinity. And this givenness is what you call saturated – it has no limits. To somehow see this in terms of Black Friday and Cyber Monday is to commit a failed analogy.
This self-emptying of Jesus, of course, includes the rejection by humans of this gift. There can be no exchange worthy of this gift – no reciprocity. We can no more respond in kind to such a saturated gift than we can to being created in the first place. This is so because we now peer into the Spirit of this Season of giving, or better, of givenness. What we celebrate, what we attempt to put into practice everyday, is what this season is about. The Word appears. The Word made flesh is given.
First, as receivers of the gift we truly give thanks. Next, as receivers who understand that all is given we give praise. Then, and only then, do we become givers ourselves. As Philippians goes on to say (2:10-11),
“At the Name of Jesus
every knee must bend in the heavens,
on the earth and under the earth,
and every tongue proclaim to the glory
Jesus Christ reigns supreme!”
Such is the gift that keeps on giving whose monthly premium is to
“Go and do likewise.”
A Prayer for the Season by Jim Ryan
You appear – Given One – calling attention to promise. Remind us that your life is timeless, your being is eternal. Yet you are here, now appearing.
You are not here to shame, or to blame, to destroy, or to differ. You are here to fill us, to saturate us, to selflessly give.
We respond also in promise – a resolution to act in season and out – to become Word for others. We live in darkness longing for your light; in emptiness awaiting your fullness.
Only in response, in return do we the given ones acknowledge your divinity in humanity and our humanity in divinity.
Maranatha! Come, brother Jesus!