A couple of weeks ago, I saw Christmas decorations up at a shopping center in Petaluma. It was more than a week before Thanksgiving, and in the past, I would have scoffed at the decorations and said to myself that they should have waited longer to put them up. Instead, with tears welling up, I said a silent thank you to those who had put those decorations up. I needed them. I didn’t know how much I needed them until I saw them. It warmed my heart to see Christmas arriving, and I wondered whether I might not be alone in this. Maybe others are feeling the need to see and hear and smell Christmas early this year. Maybe others are feeling the need to feel Christmas early this year.
All the more reason to settle into Advent this year: I need to pause before Christmas actually comes and immerse myself in the season of waiting, to allow the gifts of Advent to come into my heart.
When the pandemic began, it was springtime. It was Lent. In our church year, we’ve had the celebration of Easter, of Pentecost, and of the whole long season of Pentecost, as well as Reformation and All Saints’ Day, all while in our shelter-in-place and video worship time. And we will continue for a while longer… through Christmas and beyond.
It has been a long 8.5 months. And we’re looking at quite a few more. What we’ve been missing, we will still be missing for a while: hugs, gatherings, seeing people’s whole faces when in person, big events that have been postponed – weddings, memorials, and celebrations of all kinds.
So, what are the gifts of Advent? Why do we need to sit in Advent when our hearts so desperately crave Christmas?
With apologies to Jerome Lawrence, Robert Edwin Lee and Jerry Herman, I am re-writing a song from the musical, Mame: We need a little Advent, right this very moment… we need a little Advent now.
What are the gifts of Advent? The main one is time. Instead of rushing headlong into Christmas, we take four Sundays to reflect, to take stock, to pause, to rest, to hope, and, perhaps most importantly of all, to pray.
As much as I want and need to have Christmas surround me early this year, and I do suspect that I am not alone in this, I have an even deeper need to let Advent be four Sundays long, to let the readings of Advent prepare me for the coming of God’s only begotten Son into a manger, in a stable, with animals and shepherds and angels all around. So, let us turn to today’s reading from the book of Daniel.
Dateline 539 BC: Babylon falls. Darius the Mede receives the kingdom. Daniel, the Israelite, a.k.a Belteshazzar, who along with 3 other Israelites (who had been given the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), had distinguished himself with the Babylonian kings because of his interpretation of dreams and visions, and this Daniel distinguished himself before Darius as well. King Darius was prepared to appoint Daniel over the whole kingdom.
The leaders over whom Daniel had just been elevated tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel, but they could not: there was no corruption or negligence. Daniel was beyond reproach. So, they prevailed upon King Darius to make an edict, good for 30 days, that said that anyone who prayed to someone (whether human or divine) other than Darius would be thrown in the lion’s den.
We all know what happened next.
If you were Daniel, a highly respected member of the royal court who had originally been brought to this country as an exile, what might you think of this edict? What might you do?
Well, that is a tough question. How exactly do we put ourselves in Daniel’s place, we who have never been dragged forcibly from our homeland and put in service to a foreign king? How can we even imagine what Daniel was thinking or feeling about this edict?
I wonder whether he was afraid? I wonder whether he considered not praying to God, or at least hiding the fact that he was praying?
I would have been afraid. That’s for sure. Pray to my God and face the lions? I might have considered at least hiding the fact that I was praying. It seems like this Daniel guy has a death wish, praying openly to God with an edict like that on the books.
The real question here, it seems to me, is whether God is bigger than our fears; bigger than earthly edicts; bigger than earthly kings; and bigger than every other thing that might try to come before him in our hearts.
Daniel went on praying. He may have been afraid. He was probably afraid. But he went on praying.
When we are afraid, when we think that we’ve got to figure it all out ourselves, when we are tired of pandemic life, when we’ve lost too much, when we know people who have lost too much… can we let go and let God be God?
Here’s why we need Advent: we need time to reflect, to take stock, to pause, to rest, to hope, and to pray. We need to let go and let God be God. We need to trust God enough to walk into whatever lion’s den is in our path, knowing that we do not go alone, that our God goes with us.
Christmas will be here soon enough. And this year, I intend to revel in all of the early decorations; maybe you will, too. In the meantime, let us also dwell deeply in the Advent season, letting Advent hope wash over us and calm all of our fears, in the name of the one who comes to us as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.