OK, I admit it — I just love preparing for Christmas!
I start getting ready in November, collecting the innumerable ingredients needed to bake my famed Christmas fruit cakes, putting up the various decorations my mom and dad left us, and constantly playing Christmas music (which drives my kids to distraction). Although I no longer have any wee ones of my own, there are eight kiddies among my colleagues at work (and another on the way), so, somebody has to make sure that the office party is fun for them. I guess I’ve gladly become a bit of a Yule fool.
It wasn’t always that way.
When I lived in Nicaragua, I chose to spend Christmas holidays differently than most aid workers. Every year I’d travel to the mountainous northern border areas and volunteer to pick coffee. Sleeping on the ground, eating rice, tortillas and beans three times a day, trudging out in the rain, wasn’t exactly “a holiday.” But selling this export crop meant hard foreign currency for the country, and a better life for the peasants who had benefitted from land reform and the creation of their new co-operatives. Somehow, in spite of the fact that foreigners weren’t nearly as efficient harvesters as my Nicaraguan hosts, I was always made to feel that I was contributing. And I’d never have understood the struggles for survival of these campesinos had I not spent those weeks with them in the forgotten reaches of the countryside.
Reflecting on the Advent readings while remembering my time in Central America now, though, I wonder if my more recent North American Christmas traditionalism has led me astray.
Isn’t John the Baptist meant to be a model for me, and all Christians, this Advent? While I’m not ready to eat locusts, or forego my winter coat for camel hair, John’s proclamation of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” challenges me today. How should I “prepare a way for the Lord?”
Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie with Bing Crosby . . .
I saw people “prepare the way of the Lord” this week by organizing concerts for worthy charities. I saw young “John the Baptists” visiting nursing homes to sing Christmas carols and deliver sweets. Others prepared the way of the Lord by advocating with their member of Parliament for greater social justice. Human rights “baptists” wrote Christmas cards on International Human Rights Day to those unjustly imprisoned.
Advent seems to be calling us to a more radical living of the Gospel. Isaiah wanted to “comfort” his people, which likely meant liberating them from the Babylonian captivity. The people rushed to hear John the Baptist, and have the love of God poured on them in baptism — in the wilderness, in the desert. That is, they went to seek God on the margins of society, not in the temple. And certainly not in the shopping malls.
Advent is a time to prepare for a renewed encounter with Jesus. To create space in our busy lives for the arrival of the Saviour, we probably don’t have to give up all our traditions, but we must give up our idols. Idols are those things we place above our relationship with Our Lord, anything that keeps us from becoming all we can be in relationship with Jesus. In North America, most of us could do well by foregoing any of the competitive consumerism, the wasteful consumption, or ecologically ruinous behaviour that every television ad seems anxious to foist upon us. We could become the people of Good Friday (and Easter), not Black Friday; celebrators of Christmas Day, rather than Boxing Day.
A priest friend, now in his 70s, tells me he’s spent enough time in the confessional to be able to say, “I’ve heard it all” — except for one thing. There is one sin he has never, ever heard confessed. Which one? The Second Commandment. Are our idols are invisible to us?
The Greek word metanoia speaks of a change of mind, the suggestion of an expansion of horizons. Advent would seem to be a perfect time to be about metanoia. Accepting the coming of Christ into the world would mean acceptance of that radical change in our lives that would see the little ones, the marginalized, the widows and the orphans, the lonely and the forgotten, the refugee and the violated person — all those who enjoy God’s favour — newly perceived as “Emmanuel,” or “God among us.”
So, this Advent, let’s spend some quiet time discerning all we need to do to truly prepare for the moment of Our Saviour’s arrival in our lives. Let’s identify our “idols.” And let’s refuse to place them where that Child, born in a manger, rightly belongs.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.