Text: Luke 1:26-38 (the birth of Jesus foretold) * Video of first part of service * Order of service (PDF)
Like most children born in the 1950s, I became enchanted by Christmas as soon as I became aware of it; and because my late father was a United Church minister, and because Canada was much more religious then, the joy I experienced each year included Advent as well as Christmas elements.
Perhaps this explains the struggle I have felt during the eleven Advents I have been a minister. It is a struggle between our desires for Christmas joy – which I describe as soulful – and Advent joy — which I describe as spiritual.
My call to ministry was a highly spiritual process. It began with my return to church after 9/11 in 2001; it moved into high gear the next year at the Good Friday service at the church I had joined in Toronto; and it was cemented at my father’s funeral in 2007. I found deep joy in these spiritual awakenings even though they were based on the pain of loss and death.
As a child, I loved the transformation of my hometown of Cornwall Ontario each Christmas with the arrival of decorated trees, busy shopping sprees, and trips to see both sets of grandparents, who lived a three-hour drive west of Cornwall on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Because my father was a minister, the crescendo of the season occurred on Christmas Eve. My family gathered between the first service, which was at 7 pm and a second service at 11 pm, to read the Christmas story from Luke. I loved this ritual, and it seemed to give a special poignancy to Christmas Eve.
There were also Christmas movies, of course: “Holiday Inn” from 1942 and its 1954 remake “White Christmas,” “Miracle on 34th Street” from 1947, and animated TV shows like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolph and Red-Nosed Reindeer.” These movies and shows focus on the soulful charms of Christmas — good food, lots of snow but with no storms, family happiness, and joyous gift-giving.
But there were also Advent-themed movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” from 1946 and the 1951 version of Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol.” While these movies don’t stint on joy, they represent Advent more than Christmas because they include struggle and repentance, which reflect the spiritual side of the season.
Each year, Kim and I watch some of the Christmas movies accessible on Netflix. Last week, we watched one called “My Christmas Inn;” and although most of the action supposedly occurs in a small town in Alaska, it was filmed in Utah during the summer. Not only was I annoyed by the syrupy plot, I was also annoyed by the fake snow and the long summer days in Utah, which took away from the reality of the darkness, cold, and mystery of Christmas in Alaska.
There is nothing wrong with such Christmas movies, just as there is nothing wrong with sugary, salty, and fatty meals — when taken in moderation. But by providing little physical or psychological reality, movies like this tend to feed our addictions rather than set us up for the best that Christmas has to offer, I believe.
On the other hand, we can become addicted to anything, including spiritual experiences. Our psyches need both the soulful miracles of Christmas as well as the spiritual disciplines of Advent; and so, I am glad that this church has both a “Together at Christmas” event on December 20 as well as a “Longest Night” service the next day on December 21; and I am grateful that I get to play a central part in joyous celebrations each Christmas Eve.
Today, we experienced the joy of the Watton family as Moriah and Shane’s daughter Elizabeth Grace was baptized. Parenting provides the most cherished joys in life as well as some of its most painful challenges, which one prays, lead to spiritual growth.
Kim and I have experienced both sides of this joy with the birth of our first grandchild, Ethan, this year. We saw Ethan this past Friday when his mother Katrina drove up to Edmonton from Calgary. We were thrilled to see Katrina and to spend some time with Ethan, although the occasion was a sad one.
Katrina came to Edmonton to attend a memorial for her first boyfriend from high school, Mike, who recently died at age 38. Katrina, Kim, and Ethan attended the memorial at a funeral home while I watched the service via livestream at home. I deeply appreciated it – the words of the funeral celebrant, the rituals of candles and flowers, a slideshow of photos, and especially the remarks of Mike’s father.
Mike’s father was deeply sad, of course; and he was forthright in talking about a genetic abnormality that his son dealt with all his life and the alcoholism that dominated the last few years of Mike’s life. He also chastised the religious community in which they grew up because it says people who end their own life go to hell. The father — correctly in my opinion — said this idea was wrong.
Finally, I loved how the father repeated a refrain that “Mike was OK” – from his first experience at holding Mike after his birth to mysterious appearances in nature after his death. I agree. Mike was OK in the past, and Mike is OK today despite the pain he often experienced in his life and the darkness of his tragic death.
The memorial deeply moved me even as it was a reminder of the sadness and crushing downturns that often accompany our lives. I’m glad that Katrina got to attend the memorial, and I commend everyone who made it happen.
But what does such a sharply painful event have to do with Advent, Christmas, or baptism? Well, everything, I think.
This morning we not only participated in Elizabeth’s baptism; we listened to an anthem about sadness, grief, and joy at Christmas, and we heard a reading in which Mary comes to grips with the scary news that she will give birth to Jesus.
Unlike Zechariah, Mary accepts the Angel Gabriel’s startling news; and it is news that leads her to a life filled with hope, peace, joy, and love as well as to the incredible pain of watching her son be executed on a cross 30 years later. The birth stories of Luke and Matthew contain both sides of the season – the soulful joys of Christmas as well as the spiritual joys of Advent.
Today, we focus on both – the joys of family, hearth, and Christmas lights, and the joys of repentance, which are often precipitated by pain and loss.
I have no doubt that Moriah, Shane, and Elizabeth are experiencing both kinds of joy. There are the deep joys of Christmas, which will be more meaningful this year. And there are moments of pain, loss, and regret, which we pray will be used by everyone in the family to grow spiritually and lead them to know some of the mysterious wonders of Advent Joy.
Despite much that clouds our hearts and minds this Christmas, I am so glad that the Watton family are here with us. I pray that their realities will help to keep us in touch with the many colours and sides of Christmas.
So, on this third Sunday in Advent, I remind us again that Christmas is coming. Watch out dear friends! I fear its going to be awesome!
May it be so. Amen.