The western church’s tradition of Advent is something I have long loved. The start of a new year within the life of the Body of Christ through a season of waiting. When the children were little, I enjoyed lighting the Advent wreath with them and placing the nativity in the house. Their excitement and anticipation growing for presents and conversations about the meaning of gifts on Christmas.
Advent comes in the dark season, time has fallen back, and the darkness can feel oppressive. Some even suffer from seasonal affective disorder, a depression arising from the disturbance in the circadian systems of the body. However, we are all to some degree lost in the darkness. Dante writes, “Midway on the journey of our life / I woke to find myself alone and lost in the dark wood / Having wandered from the straight path.”
For those who recognize they are lost in the darkness the first Advent candle lit is that spark of hope, a small light in a dark and noisy world. A flame that turns our hearts and minds to the prayers of all the prophets saying, “How Long, O Lord.” (Ps. 13:1) How long must we wait? Will this be another season where we get caught up in our own projects and plans? Or will this be the season when we finally break and allow God access to our hearts? Will we allow our hearts to be shaped by the truth that has spread around the globe over the last two thousand years? The wonderful Advent truth of hope, love, joy, and peace that we find in the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
When we focus on Jesus and what He did for us, everything else falls into place. We don’t need material things to have a meaningful Christmas- all we need is the Word. When our focus is on Him, we can see past the noise of this world and into the true meaning of Christmas. And that my friends is what will bring us genuine joy this holiday season.
The Advent season is a time for purposeful living. It carries with it the promise of hope, peace, joy, and love that each of us seeks in our lives. As we approach the holidays, we can find meaning in purposeful reflection on what truly matters if we can let go of distractions and worries. The Advent season gives us truly meaningful principles built on the indestructible foundation of Christ.
During this first week of advent, we have reflected on hope. Hope propels us forward even when the odds seem insurmountable. It is what gives us the strength to keep going even when we feel like we can’t. Hope allows us to see the light at the end of the tunnel. When we focus on God, we are reminded that no matter how dark life may seem, there is always light waiting for us at the end because we have the hope in the coming of the Messiah.
The second principle we have been reflecting on is love. Hope gives way to love and love makes us human. It is what binds us together and allows us to see the beauty in life. Love gives us the courage to face our fears and the compassion to help others through their struggles. When we focus on God, we are reminded that we are not alone in this world and that the Creator of all things known and unknown will not be kept from showing us his love.
The third principle we can take from Advent is joy. Joy makes life worth living. It is what fills us with happiness and reminds us of what’s truly important in life. Joy makes us grateful for all that we have been given. God’s joy reminds us that even though life may be difficult, there are still many things to be thankful for.
Hope gives way to love and fills us with joy. These fruits of the Holy Spirit lead to peace, which allows us to find calm amid chaos. It is what helps us to let go of our anger and fear so that we can live in harmony with those around us. Peace reminds us that although the world may be full of turmoil, we can find tranquility in Christ. God reminds us that no matter how chaotic life may seem, there will always be moments of calm if we just know where to look for him.
These are just a few of the principles that we can take from Advent and apply to our lives.
We need solid principles because a time is coming when all nations will go up to the temple of the Lord. (Is. 2:2-4). The flame of hope in the soon coming Kingdom of God is lit in us when we are no longer looking at our own plans and preparations. Instead, we see the great work God is doing in the world. We recognize we are lost and in darkness. This recognition enables us to turn away from that darkness towards God and no longer live like the church people of John the Baptist’s day to which he said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” The Pharisees and Sadducees did not recognize their lost nature, believing to be saved by the acts of Abraham and the indestructibility of the Jewish people.
Today, we have much of the same thing! People claiming salvation because they have “faith”! The great misunderstanding of scripture is the belief that all you need is “faith.” How misunderstood this concept is and wrong!
“Faith alone” is only found in one place in Scripture, in the book of James where James writes, “Faith alone, if not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17) Paul writes in Ephesians it is God’s grace that saves us, not works so we don’t boost, but grace so that we can do good works. Faith and works go hand in hand. Saying faith without acting on it means you don’t really have faith.
This brings us back to today’s scripture reading in Matthew 3, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and the lighting of the hope and preparation candle. Do you heed the words of the one crying out in the wilderness?
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
How are you preparing for the coming of the Lord?
In the United Methodist lectionary preaching notes for this week it says, “There is a small glimmer of hope deep down within us that only dares show its face at this time of year. We dare entertain the idea that peace on earth is possible during Advent. And then quickly shake our heads and say it is kid’s stuff. Like Charlie Brown and his poor excuse for a tree and the Grinch and his heart that grew three sizes one day—it is the stuff of cartoons and sappy seasonal specials.”
The preaching notes go on to say that we need to be willing to suffer and work for a different way of being in “community”, to stand for a better way.
We talk about the sappy seasonal Christmas shows and silly cartoon specials. We make believe in Santa Claus and play silly Christmas games, but I want you all to know… Santa Claus is real. There are people in this world that know peace on earth is possible. Whether it be the early church fathers who resisted great persecution, Constantine the Great who ended the persecution and convened the First Council of Nicaea, or those great saints like Wilberforce and many others that stood against slavery. Our history is filled with these people that work to prepare a way for the coming of the Lord – just like Saint Nicholas of Myra whom we today call Santa Claus.
For me, there is one human that stands head and shoulders above the rest. A true standing stone, pointing to a better way. The greatest human alive. More worthy than Moses, greater than King David, more inspired than the prophets Daniel and Isaiah. In Greek, known as the “Theotokos” – God-bearer.
Mother Mary is a special person. Indeed, it took some 731 years or 14 generations from Abraham to David for God to prepare a nation capable of redeeming the world, but David could not complete the mission. Then it took another 731 years or 14 generations from David to Mary. God had prepared a place, a family, and a little girl devout in service to God through which to do a great work. It is said that Mary was so devout that when given to the temple of the Lord she “danced” and dwelt in the house of the Lord as if she were a dove and was sustained by angels.
Now, we don’t know a lot of details about Mary’s life, but we know a few things. She was from an ultra-religious community in Nazareth. She had humility beyond what we can imagine because as great as she was she lived in the background of history. No other person aside from Christ himself was as significant as Mary. Summarizing the poet Dante: she was the fulcrum of God’s everlasting plan. Her actions, her deeds ennobled all of human nature. In her womb, she could bear an ever-living hope for all mankind. Can we even imagine this strength and courage?
Saint Gregory the Miracle-worker points out, God revealed in Mary things beyond all the prophets and patriarchs. The last prophet of the Old Testament St. Simeon, in the second chapter of Luke, told Mary that her soul would be pierced by like her Son. That song, “Mary Did You Know?” Yes. Mary knew more than we know. She talked with angels. She followed God. And when he asked, she bore him into this world so that he could be flesh and redeem us all. And when people ask Mary for help, she always points them to her Son saying, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)
She is the ultimate standing stone. The church views Mary as the Throne of Wisdom or Seat of Wisdom. Yes, wisdom is eternal! The Word, pure reason, the Logos, was there before time and is infinitely greater than Mary, but Mary is as close to wisdom as a human can be. In Proverbs 8 we read:
“Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. I, wisdom, dwell in prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion… He who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death.”
The Holy Trinity can be said to be wisdom itself and Christ incarnate as wisdom come to be with mankind. Jesus was born into this world through Mary, as the Angel Gabriel said, “Most blessed of all women.” Why was she so blessed? She had found wisdom, as Proverbs said, and “obtained favor from the Lord” becoming a New Ark of the Covenant as revealed in Revelations 11-12. Jesus explains in Luke 11 that Mary was not blessed because she bore Christ. She was blessed because she heard the Word of God and obeyed it. She had faith and works.
What an example of a standing stone!
What does this have to do with today? This Christmas?
First, in Christianity there are two primary non-negotiable beliefs. First, the Incarnation of Christ. He is both fully man and fully God – not two persons but one hypostatically combined God and man. Second, he rose from the dead. If you don’t believe either of those two things, you do not know Jesus.
I believe Jesus was made flesh through Mary, was crucified on the cross, and rose from the dead on the third day. Therefore, I believe in resurrection. As a Christian the grave is conquered, and death is not our enemy. I am coming back to take part in Christ’s divine nature. Therefore, I believe Mary is not dead but is alive with Christ, just like all the saints that followed her, just like Saint Nicholas of Myra – Santa Claus. These saints are still acting in the world today. They are working with Christ to bring about the new Kingdom. Santa Claus bringing joy to little children! C.S. Lewis teaching us through his books. Peter, Paul, and John encouraging us with their letters. Granted, Santa Claus may or may not be going up and down chimneys, but who knows? Mary has been known to show up in some desperate places, too.
Second, the deeper we get into a materialist culture the more divorced we become from a spiritual culture. This should be clear by the lack of power in our churches. I believe humanity goes through cycles, and we can feel this today as this Information Age pushes at the limits of its capabilities. Our cultures’ increasing concern with physical things like sexual identities, the devaluing of human life, and more violent desires for power and control prove a dramatic lack of concern with spiritual things.
We can be tempted to lose hope.
And so, every week we light the Advent candle of hope first, because like Mary, like all the Saints since – our hope is Christ, in him is life, and that life is the light of all humanity, and it shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. When you are baptized in the Holy Spirit no matter how twisted the age becomes that flame cannot be overcome! The baptized stand as lights shining the beacon of hope, love, joy, and peace on an unbelieving age.
If we act on this belief in faith not only will we be saved but we will be standing stones preparing the way by pointing others to Christ! Other’s lost in the darkness will find hope and encouragement to begin preparing the way for the Lord in their lives and in their communities. Act on this belief in faith, give a little more this year. As my dear friend Darrell likes to preach, share God a little more this year. Or as my other church brother, Dr. Allen, likes to say be in the Word a little more this year.
I thought of closing with a prayer to Mary by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, but this is a little controversial for protestants and I do not want to get into the Communion of the Saints and various forms of heavenly intercession. This prayer is adapted from Saint Teresa of Kolkata:
“Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for raising up a woman like Mary to bring you into this world, a woman to be a mother to each of us, an example to guide us that we may be like her, pure in heart, wise, and obedient to your Word; that we, like her, love you; that we, like her, serve the poorest, for we are all poor and in need of your mercy. Amen.”