Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church

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Clergy Corner

The Sacred Confusion of Advent

  • The Rev. Dr. Bill Murray
  • Nov 29, 2018
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Every family observes and maintains certain holiday traditions. My wife’s family chooses to never label their presents. This tradition is not born from some deep egalitarian purpose where all the gifts are the same or a quirky desire to simplify the process with wrapping paper themes. The goal rests in thwarting inquisitive minds and impish hands. As the family story goes, Jessie, my bride, loved the build up to Christmas. However, she has never received the gift of patience. Many years ago, as Christmas day in Birmingham inched closer and filled a certain little girl with expectations, her fascination and day-dreams were overtaken by action. The myriad wrapped boxes under the tree were a target far too tempting to resist. One day she carefully opened all her presents, took inventory of the surprises, and then wrapped them all back up. She will openly confess that she ruined her own Christmas that year. I suspect that a combination of Jessie’s bad acting and of gifts not quite perfectly re-wrapped led to the enduring tradition of never labeling Christmas presents. Their family tradition is meant to preserve expectation, surprise, and hope.

Advent rests comfortably at the opening of the Church calendar, filled with longing. The season is meant to be more than a way to help us count down the days to Christmas. The reality of Advent dwells closer to opening presents and hoping desperately for more. The four-week season exists as a liturgical pun. We are indeed preparing ourselves for the coming of Christmas, to revel in the wonder and majesty of God in a manger, to recall the gift of incarnation to the world. In the same breath, we are preparing for the return of Jesus in glory, for Christ’s second coming, for a future moment technically named the eschaton. In Romans, Paul theologically connects this time of both the presence of Christ and the future return of Christ to pregnancy. The missionary from Tarsus sees the whole of creation groaning in expectation even as we groan in the hope of a better world as children of God. Even the Spirit of God groans with us in prayer as we recall the gift of the Incarnation and inexorably yearn for Christ’s return to set all things to right.

As Christmas creeps closer and fills us with expectations, we are placed in a wonderful tension. We will celebrate again the joy of the nativity with family and friends gathered. We must also wait, hope, and pray, with sighs and groaning too deep for words, for a second gift that will come one day soon that has no label but will surprise and redeem us all.