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Expecting in the unexpected: Make it beautiful

Pastor and professor Samuel Wells tells a moving story in a recent issue of the Christian Century. He recalls a time when he was asked to speak to a dying man. This man wasn’t sure where he stood on religion, and was anticipating the end of his life in the coming months.  Wells remembers one of the poignant questions the man asked of him, “What would you want written on your tombstone?” Wells was surprised. A Christian ethicist by trade, and currently a prominent pastor in the Anglican Church of England, he had never considered this before. Wells joked: “Well, I’m not sure I want anything written on my tombstone. Eternity is a long time to commit to.” After a few chuckles, Wells answered for real: “I suppose I would write make it beautiful.” Life is not always good, but it can still be beautiful. This is Wells’ approach to pastoral care for those caught in the throes of difficult circumstances.

The first Advent was not good. A young couple travels deep into their third trimester of pregnancy — I’m sure any modern OB-GYN or midwife would not advise that. Once they arrive in Joseph’s hometown, there’s nowhere to stay. Our modern imaginations tell us that there was no room at the Bethlehem hotel, but the ancient Middle Eastern eye sees the story differently. Luke’s text reads, “There was no room in the inn.” That word “inn” refers not to a Motel 6, but rather to the upstairs guest bedrooms that would’ve existed in Joseph’s relatives’ homes. In other words, Joseph and Mary couldn’t even find shelter in a guest room with their extended family. Like many of us are experiencing this year, their Christmas was quiet and lonely. And we can understand their isolation. While it is a great loss not to have indoor Christmas Eve services this year, what we are experiencing is closer to the reality of the first Christmas.

Most years the Christmas season is a time when we are flooded with messages of positivity. With a COVID-19 vaccine on the way, there are certainly some things to be positive about, and surely there is much in our lives for which we can be thankful. Even so, our sanitizing nativities and Hallmark-style Christmas cheer tend push us away from the bluer, sadder tones of Advent. Last Sunday evening, my wife led our church through a Zoom “Blue Christmas” liturgy. We sat in silence, lit candles and named our grief and losses. It was one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever experienced at church during Advent. Sometimes we need permission to name how hard this year has been for most of us. As it turns out, there is no amount of hot cocoa, online shopping, or spiked Christmas punch that will numb away the inner malaise so many of us feel.

Advent for the new parents Mary and Joseph was not about making life good. Life in the ancient world, especially for two peasants from nowhere, was anything but good. Our tendency to make Christmas about “living the good and happy life” is rooted not in the biblical narrative, but rather in the United States’ narrative of individual freedom and prosperity. This freedom narrative has told us all since the day we were born that our life is our own, that we can become anything we want, do anything we want — if we only put in enough effort. Enough. That is the watchword of the American Advent. You will be enough when you earn your enough-ness. Life is supposed to be happy, fulfilling and good, and if it’s not, something is seriously wrong with you.

The truth is, the world baby Jesus came into was anything but good. It was as our world is now: full of hatred, violence, racism and a lot of ego. As much as Mary and Joseph must have wanted their son’s life to be happy and good, the angel’s promise loomed with the prospect of suffering. To be the Savior will not be to live a clean and easy life. There is a cross in the crib of Christ. He will touch the diseased, lunch with the alcoholic, be washed by the prostitute and be baptized by a wilderness street-preacher. In 33 years’ time, this child will hang lifeless in the air in a garbage dump outside the capital. He will become yet another casualty of Rome’s cruelty, another truthteller made martyr by the faces in the crowd. The four candles of Advent – joy, peace, love, hope – are easy to sentimentalize. But before peace there will be the naming of injustice, before joy there will be the naming of sorrow, before love there will be the naming of hatred, before hope there will be the naming of despair. Jesus will, as my wife said Sunday in a gorgeous homily, “sing our Christmas blues for us.” And as any blues fan knows, the minor notes are not about the good life, they are about making beauty out of suffering.

I suppose my prayer this Advent is not that God would make my life “better” or “good” or “happier.” Life isn’t always good, and people aren’t always happy. Maybe instead I will cry out like Mary who said, “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Maybe when faced with interminable waiting I will answer the angel like Joseph, who said yes to a son not from his own body. Maybe this Advent I will dwell in the quiet mornings in my front room and pray, “Lord, make it beautiful.”

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