In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, our first Advent here in the church in-person since 2019, and the first of those coming days where we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s human birth at Christmas. Jesus says to us, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Many of the best things in life are things that require a thoughtful period of preparation before they happen: marriages have engagement, births have their pregnancies, graduations have their periods of study, victories have their times of struggle. In all such the things, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it, as work, labor, study, pain, and struggle give way to joy and celebration.
A good part of the experience is the preparation for it. It means becoming the kind of person who can enjoy whatever the experience is. For some reason, we often do not think Christian experience is like all these other things. We expect it to come easily as if we could stumble into it. Some people don’t think Christian experience is anything special because they did not experience anything profound at one time or another. It is like showing up at the Boston Marathon without first preparing to run it, or expecting to cook a meal for guests without putting the time into learning how to cook, or thinking you can appreciate a game of sport without learning the rules. It is the time and preparation that create the experience in the first place. It is this way with everything that matters because no really significant experience can be had on the cheap. Christmas is exactly like this and always has been. Christmas has the four Sundays of Advent, an age old time of preparation where the more we put into it, the more Christmas we get when the time comes.
I know that many of you have already started, trees are being acquired, time and effort are already being spent to find gifts for friends, loved ones, and strangers in need. Now I know there are some people who get themselves worked up over the extravagance of it all, and claim that much of this is not in keeping with the solemnity of such a religious occasion. But there is something so lovely about our religious tradition of giving each other gifts out of our immense gratitude for the gift Jesus is to us, and how millions of people with no other Christian faith share this practice with us just because it is so compelling. If there is an extravagance and excessive generosity toward others, well that is the right kind of fanaticism for a religion to inspire.
The last couple of days have brought with them some new fears for all of us who scan the horizon looking for new threats from the global pandemic. Along with those fears, I’ve noticed another message that is smuggling itself into our Advent observance this year claiming to help us feel better. It is while you are shopping for others, a voice that says, “Why don’t you buy yourself a little something?” I’ve already bought a couple of gifts for myself this year. I don’t know how much that has been happening with other people (I suspect that I’m not the only one buying myself a Christmas present this year, and I don’t think all the advertising we are subjected to is just to encourage us to be more generous towards other people). It has made me think a bit and even try to make a good argument for why my self-shopping is in the spirit of the Christmas season. “It’s been a hard year. No one knows what I need or want better than … me, so I’m really in the best position to buy gifts for myself. Who’s to say that Jesus doesn’t want to give me something new?”
The more I think about it the more I realized that without noticing it, I’ve a crossed a line that shows that I may not be taking Advent very seriously. And if I keep that up, I may not get the real joy that I am supposed to get at Christmas, even with my new things. The old truth about Advent gift buying is that it really is a form of voluntary renunciation. It is about letting go of things that are of such value to us that they become gifts to someone else. It is the anticipation of Christmas that gives us the confidence to renounce what we have for the good of another.
Like all ancient truths, this truth of Advent is one we need to hear more than we realize. Although our economy can be trusted to teach us to buy this time of year, it teaches nothing at all of the joy of renunciation, the pleasure of sacrifice, and the need we have to give up what is rightfully ours. It is as if these truths are too profound to be known without spiritual discipline and ancient traditions. In our culture of winners winning, of prizes and acquisition, the wisdom of loss, of losing with grace, is hard to come by. This has the effect that I see really successful people utterly stopped in their tracks when confronted with loss. I know better than to tell them at that moment that human life is always, without exception, a series of losses big and small. Yes we can fight, yes we can reject the world as it is, we can attempt to hold on to it all, and try our best to keep what we have known and loved from changing before our very eyes, but none of that will protect us from loss.
I never talk about sports in my sermons because sport analogies are overdone and too often assume everybody understands them, but there is one thing that may be learned better there than in most places (including church) and it is not what we usually suspect. It is how to lose and not be undone by it. I remember in high school playing a final tennis match that was so long that it was the last one being played. It turned out to be the one that would determine which school won that day. All the players and coaches gathered along the sidelines to watch. I become more careful and stiffened up. The more I realized what was at stake and the worse I did. It was a long, lonely return bus ride where I wrestled with the loss. What is clear in sports is that even after such a loss, there is still more life to be had. A loss is not the end if one can learn to make that loss into wisdom. It is surprising how much more there is to learn from an experience of loss (or even failure) than from yet one more forgettable win.
Of course, the stakes are much higher when we are no longer talking about chasing after balls and sticks. The stakes are much higher when we are talking about human lives, about hearts and minds, about loves and losses. How are such losses not just experiences of defeat and how do they come into the service of wisdom? That is a truth worth knowing. It is a soul-sustaining truth that self-shopping is no substitute for.
What if the renunciation and discipline of Advent is a way of transforming necessary and unavoidable losses into voluntary gifts? It would then be a season that gathers our losses and pain and–rather than having these things be only experiences of involuntary subtraction that lessens us–these things are caught up into God’s gifting and wisdom. They all become paths to the Christ child. They become the necessary preparation for Christmas. They all become “sacrifices,” which is an old word for losses that become “sacred gifts.” Compared to Advent the constant emphasis on winning and acquisition can seem like the empty promises they too often are.
However much we have and love, we can go through life anxious, uptight, and afraid to lose what we have. The trouble is that no matter how hard we hold on, all things revert to the gifts they originally were. The only real question is how many of us will voluntarily embrace the economy of the joy of renunciation, the pleasure of sacrifice, and the need we have to give away what is rightfully ours. The discipline of Advent prepares us for Christmas because its “sacrifices,” its voluntary gifts, its letting go, involve the opening up of clenched fists that once again become open hands and it is only with such open hands that one can receive the gift of the Christ child.
Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Advent is the time the time to practice opening our hands and learning to transform losses into acts of generous sacrifice, where what can be taken from us is instead willingly offered by us as gifts. It is a time of giving, clearing away, of parting, of letting go, all in anticipation that the temporary pain of such losses makes space for the birth of the Christ, who is a gift that can never be taken from us because he never belongs to us. We belong to him. And that is one belonging that does not ask us to hold onto it because it is already holding onto us.
Please know that we at All Saints’ are going to do our absolute utmost to have all the Advent and Christmas services in-person and as safely as possible for all. Expect us to be there for you and lean into this sacred season. May this Advent be a sacred time for you and your family as you learn the wisdom of this ancient season, and may you be exceedingly generous in giving away the gifts God has given you, as each and every sacrifice leads you to embrace all the promise and possibility that the Christ child holds for you at Christmas. Amen.