Update: Audio for Jim Knipper’s homily is also available. Click here to listen.
As we light our fourth Advent candle, this season of waiting and hoping and preparation comes quickly to close with Christmas just a few days away.
Or does it?
For me, Advent is not just a four week season which kicks off a new liturgical year. And it is not just four weeks of getting “ready” for Christmas. And it is more than just waiting for the second coming of Christ. For we can focus so much of our prayer life seeking what is to come, that we may just miss what is already here. All Advent we have sung Emmanuel – God is with us. So how does living a life woven in the fabric of this season allow us to see Christ in our daily lives?
In the past few weeks here are three people who have shown us the way.
We begin with John the Baptist, who dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, clearly had no ego. John knew his role and it was fairly straight forward. He was to tell all who would listen of the need to be prepared for the coming of the Lord, the Christ, the one who is mightier than he, and the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. But later we find John in prison where his faith seems to be a bit wavering and he sends his disciples off to ask Jesus if he was indeed the Christ….or should they keep looking?
Don’t we all go through that feeling in our lives? When all is going great and life is good, it is relatively easy to see Christ in our lives. But as soon as we find ourselves sitting in our proverbial prisons of darkness, addictions and personal losses we quickly begin to ask, “Where is God?” It was the main question we were all asking a year ago over the deaths at Sandy Hook elementary school. And it is the question many of us ask when faced with great adversity in our lives.
But Christ reassured John, and thus us, to live with the faith that the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor (that means ALL of us) – are beneficiaries of the good news proclaimed.
Then in today’s Gospel (Matthew 1:18-25) we heard the story of Joseph. For being such a key person in the life of Christ very little is written about him. It is interesting that he is not mentioned in any of the letters by Paul, whose writings are the earliest found in the New Testament. Nor is he mentioned in Mark’s or John’s gospels. He only appears in Matthew and Luke. In addition to that, not a word spoken by Joseph was ever recorded – rather only his actions. And in the case of Joseph, his actions speak louder than any words. Actually they speak volumes about what living a life of Advent is all about.
Betrothed to Mary, but before their marriage, Joseph is told that she is with child.
What? Pregnant and not married?
One really must pause here and take notice to what happened in Joseph’s life! Imagine the flood of emotions that had to have come over him. Like any man soon to be married he must have had aspirations of what his life with his new wife was going to be like. But all that gets pulled out from under him.
What is he to do? What are the people in town saying? If charged with adultery she will most likely be stoned to death. Meanwhile he is working hard just to pay the burden of Roman as well as the Temple taxes. And now his betrothed is found to be with child?
I would think it only human for him to have said the same thing we may say when overwhelmed with life, “God – you have to be kidding me! I can’t handle anymore!”
But being one righteous in nature, he decides to divorce her quietly as to not expose her to shame. But as we heard the angel appears to him in a dream and tells him that this child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, she will bear a son and he is to name the child – Jesus. When he awakes he does as he has been asked and takes Mary into his home. Joseph lives a life of Advent, of having faith in how God is ever present in your life, even where you least expect it.
And lastly, this past week, the world mourned the death of Nelson Mandela. Born in South Africa and raised Methodist by his mother, Christianity was central to his life. Living in Johannesburg, he became involved in anti-colonial politics, joining the African National Congress and becoming a founding member of its Youth League in their search for justice against the practices of apartheid.
Apartheid, an Afrikaan’s word meaning ‘the state of being apart,’ was a system of racial segregation in South Africa enforced by the ruling government from 1948 to 1994. During that time the rights of the majority black inhabitants were curtailed, non-white political representation was abolished and black people were deprived of their citizenship.
In 1962 Mandela was arrested, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela served over 27 years in prison and was finally released in 1990. So what does he do upon his release? It would certainly have been easy for him to have taken his family and walk away from it all. Or recognizing his popularity he could have rallied the blacks in order to seek violent retribution against the whites for all of his personal suffering and the suffering of so many of his race.
Instead, Nelson Mandela decided to live a life rooted in Advent, so that others could see God’s presence coming through the cracks of the chaos, deception, alienation and segregation. He went on a mission to make God visible to those jailed as well as the jailers. Mandela, together with F. W. de Klerk, abolished apartheid and established multiracial elections in 1994, in which Mandela was elected the president of South Africa. Just years out of prison he set out on a brief political career where he taught people how to live in relationship with each other despite their religion, their sexual preference or the color of their skin.
John the Baptist, Joseph and Nelson Mandela all lived lives which carried the core essence of Advent. But in doing so they clearly made those around them uncomfortable. And, with no surprise, it is that same sense of uneasiness that some feel about Pope Francis. Why? Because like John, like, Joseph, like Mandela, like Mother Teresa, like Dorothy Day, like Jesus, Pope Francis understands that Advent reminds us that living a life in Christ is not either/or, but rather both/and.
John found that his deep love of Christ also meant losing his life. Joseph bringing a young pregnant girl into his home as his wife also had faith that his actions were part of God’s plan. And while doing hard time in prison Mandela also never lost hope in God and trusted that one day he would be free to do all he could to end segregation in his country.
You see, we all have times in our lives when the bottom can’t seem to get any lower. Where God’s plan does not seem to match up with the one our ego designed for ourselves. Yet by actively living the spirit of Advent, the spirit of inclusion, the spirit of hoping, the spirit of faith – Christ becomes visible to us, present to us, living within us – time and time again.
So, Advent comes to a close in a few days…and…at the same time it doesn’t. For we are told repeatedly to not be afraid, but rather to be open and vulnerable to the daily arrival of Christ in our lives. So, as you blow out that last Advent candle tonight and toss the Advent wreath back in the closet till next year – do not discard the true essence of this season so to be committed to a life of listening, loving, hoping, enduring and trusting – a life rooted in Advent. And In turn, your eyes will be opened to seeing the ever presence of Christ…in places you least expect.
Jim Knipper is a deacon at St. Paul’s Church in Princeton, NJ. He has just released his second book of homilies and sermons: Naked, And You Clothed Me. Under the moniker of “Homilists for the Homeless,” Jim has brought together some of the finest homilists including Rob Bell, Joan Chittister, Christine Valters Paintner, Jan Richardson, Richard Rohr, and many others in order to provide spiritual food for the reader. Proceeds from the sale of this book series benefit charities that clothe, feed and shelter those in need.
Image: Sapientia, Codex Gigas