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Posted by Kris MacQueen
 - Dec 6, 2017, 1:49 pm
Victoria Bridge.jpg

I had a taste of real winter when I visited Winnipeg a few days ago: when I stepped out of the airport terminal, I was greeted with -17° C. temperatures, not to mention the wind chill.  But here in London, Ontario today, the banks of the Thames River are still green and the river itself is ice-free.  There's no snow in the forecast for another few days.

But if the date of the arrival of winter is unpredictable, we know for certain that Christmas is coming.  After all, our Christmas cacti are blooming.  They understand the times and the seasons, with their blooms being stimulated by the long hours of darkness that come in November.  But almost as inviolable as these plants' circadian rhythm is the Canadian marketing calendar.  Retailers in Canada don't have the ever-more permeable barrier of American Thanksgiving to hold back the commencement of Christmas marketing, and thus it is now customary for Christmas displays to go up the day after Hallowe'en.

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Dutch Blitz on Christmas Day, 2012--the last time our oldest son Aaron was home for Christmas. This year again, we'll be missing our daughter Naomi and the now dread-less Ben Wildflower.

For the past few years, I've felt an inner disquietude with the approach of Christmas.  I don't know why this is: our seasonal times of celebration as a family have always been filled with love, peace and joy--and gratitude for the opportunity to gather our children and grandchildren around our big old harvest table.  This year will be a special occasion as the newest member of our family, our daughter-in-law Ciao-ling Hong, joins us for Christmas, her first in Canada. On the other hand, we're sure to keenly feel the absence of the Wildflowers, Ben and Naomi, who will be spending their second Christmas in Kolkata, India. We'll decorate a tree (which must be a real tree), hang stockings for everyone young and old, attend a Christmas Eve service in an Anglican or Catholic church for a touch of mystery, roast a turkey and cook four side dishes for Christmas dinner--in short, do everything we've done every other year.  There may even be a game of Dutch Blitz or two.  But the anticipation of the happiness of that day isn't enough to settle my anxiety.


But perhaps the inward tension I feel is just as it ought to be.  The joy we experience when we are together as a family may be the resonance of the good tidings of great joy that the angels brought to the shepherds as the forerunners of all who would welcome Christ's birth.  Yet, if we listen carefully, there is an ominous tone in the announcements of the Advent of Christ by John the Baptist and (even) his mother Mary.  John prophesied that when Jesus came, he would clean house--"make a clean sweep" of our lives.  Mary foretold the cosmic upheaval that would be achieved through the life and death of her son:
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Ben's Magnificat.jpg

To get a stronger sense of the disruptive impact of the Advent, we only need to convert the verbs in Mary's song from the present perfect tense to the imperative, as my son-in-law Ben did in his "Magnificat" linocut: "Cast down the mighty/Lift the lowly/Fill the hungry/Send the rich away". (Shameless plug for Ben: you can order T-shirts printed with this image from his Etsy shop.)
While it has not been a part of our family's Christmas traditions (nor those of our birth families) the celebration of Advent as a season of the church calendar (beginning with the fourth Sunday before Christmas) has a long history within Christianity. Conceptualized as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Advent commemoration in the early days of the Christian church often included a period of fasting. The association of fasting with Advent has waned, if not disappeared, over the centuries; now, the thought of reintroducing it during a season when the religion of consumer capitalism dominates our culture seems heretical.

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Yet there are voices that call for us to recapture the original disruptive understanding of the Advent season. Donald Heinz writes, "As Thoreau went to Walden Pond to escape the distractions of his age and to re-center himself, the four weeks of Advent become a religious antidote to the powerful distractions of the market." Another voice which speaks from the past with prophetic fervor is that of the German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who wrote "Advent is the time for rousing.  Humanity is shaken to the very depths, so that we may wake up to the truth of ourselves.  The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender... The kind of awakening that literally shocks a person's whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea" (Prison Writings, 15).
Alfred Delp (1907-1945) was executed by the Nazis for high treason after he refused to renounce the Jesuits in exchange for his freedom.

While Father Delp was imprisoned in a Gestapo prison cell, awaiting his trial and eventual execution, he wrote a series of meditations on Advent, the Lord's Prayer, and other spiritual themes on slips of paper that he smuggled out to his Munich congregation with his dirty laundry. For him, John the Baptist was the personification of Advent; in his writings, he returned again and again to John's life as an example of authentic and faithful living for his own chaotic and confusing generation.  The message that John preached in the desert outside Jerusalem was "Prepare the way for the Lord's coming!" We need Advent to awaken us to the truth that we desperately need God's salvation, personally and collectively.  "Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, we cannot possibly understand the full import of Advent" (Prison Writings, 22).

If we are "not shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of" today, when will we be? When the president of the most powerful country in the world can make more than 1,600 false and misleading claims in his first 300 days in office, when the list of powerful men accused of sexual harassmentgrows daily, when parents are willing to torture and abuse their children online for paying customers in Canada and elsewhere (do I need to go on?), we are clearly in desperate need of awakening. But, the terrible realization of our true condition is calmed by the certain knowledge that God is on the way: "Prepare the way for the Lord's coming!"  Delp describes life as "continuous Advent": "hunger and thirst and awareness of lack" followed by movement toward the fulfillment that we find in God.  My most hopeful thought is that the current crisis of integrity in our society (and the church--for abuse of power and exploitation of the vulnerable is rampant there as well) will generate a spiritual awakening.

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As I interviewed this former bonded labourer, I was struck by an awareness that 90% of what separated my experience from his was a factor over which I had no control- where I happened to be born.

But what of me? How will I allow Advent to shake me to my very depths? I don't fully know the answer to that question, but I sense I will find it among the poor in our community--for that is where I most often find Jesus. My hunger and thirst this Advent season is to come alongside him as he lifts the lowly and feeds the hungry.  I am conscious of my power, privilege and wealth: how accustomed I am to having people respond favourably to me because of my leadership position; how much I enjoy the privileges accorded to affluent white males in our society; how dependent I am on the comfort and security my affluence provides.  My Advent fast is to make every effort possible to set those things aside for the next 24 days and identify with the poor.  I can only hope it awakens me.

And then, on December 25, I will party like my life depends on it, while acknowledging God as the giver of every good gift (including--of course--family, friends, food and wine).

© Edwin G Wilson (used with permission) See Ed's original post on his blog.