Whether one looks at the Old Testament from the viewpoint of a Jew or of a Christian, it is clear that the whole library of books that makes it up points to the future, to the coming of Messiah, to good days for all the people – peaceful, productive existence as brothers and sisters, all creatures of the one God. As a beloved seminary professor of mine used to say, “Gentlemen, from God’s call to the realization of the promise there is a long, hard pull that goes on at this very moment.”
Aside from what merchandising and commercialism and consumerism do to the essential meaning of Christmas as the birthday of Jesus, our own devotion and attitudes may be a bit askew. Christmas, you know, was not nearly as significant to the Christians of the first several centuries as it has become to us. The core of their theology of Jesus was his teachings, his ministry of healing, his death and his resurrection, in all of which they found life and hope and the promise of perfect life. They didn’t pay much attention to his birth. Their good leaders and writers and teachers taught them that Advent – by that or any other name or form — was a period of intensified effort at living more the way Jesus did.
And so it should be for us. The material gifts we exchange in celebration of Jesus’ birth give pleasure and are expressions of love, no doubt. But they are also, and primarily, tokens of Jesus’ gift of himself in his life, labor, and death. Granted, it’s so much easier to fill a stocking than to fill up what is lacking in our behavior toward one another and to the strangers and the outcasts in our midst, but it would be a waste – we would all miss so much — if we did not accept and act on the challenge of the season.
That great American, great Christian, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose sinful human weaknesses we all know well, assured his people that, even though there still lay before them a difficult and dangerous climb, the mountain top was at last visible and well within their reach. He said that justice and right ultimately would prevail and that what was asked of them was to do right in all matters, to believe in the justice of their cause, and to trust in the God who accompanied them faithfully and assured them of victory. Non-violence, he told them and showed them, would be the chief characteristic of this movement toward freedom and human rights. He insisted that their artillery would not be guns and bullets and bombs, but non-violence, which he described in these words: “Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles those who wield it. It is a sword that heals.”
It worked and became a new model for human progress. People who could not have imagined an Oprah Winfrey or a Johnnie Cochrane, a Denzel Washington, an Ella Fitzgerald, a Cornell West or a Barack Obama at last had solid hope for themselves and their children as collaborators and competitors in a free society. But this is what great leaders always do: they give their followers convincing reason to continue the struggle, to pay the inevitable price, and to anticipate eagerly the prize that lies ahead.
Let’s make this one — day by day, minute by minute — our best Advent ever!