My primary responsibility when decorating our artificial Christmas tree each year is to put on the lights. Okay, it’s my only responsibility. I’ve really liked our Christmas tree lights. They’ve had just the right brightness, just the right distance from one another, striking the right balance between allure and mystery. I’m not sure where we got the lights, but it must’ve been when Marg Bryce, a member of Bellevue Reformed Church, gave us her already well-used tree 20 Christmases ago. Maybe they came with the tree. For me, the tree and the lights have always belonged together.
After another successful mounting of the lights post-Thanksgiving, I noticed a couple of days ago that one of the strings had quit working. All my usual fixes were unsuccessful. The light string was dead. After Sharon’s unfruitful trip to Walmart, I went to Menard’s where I splurged on a string of $15 multicolored LED Christmas lights. After a futile effort to replace the dead string of lights without disturbing the ornaments, Sharon, always a good sport, said she’d take all the ornaments off the tree.
Later, while Sharon attended a Zoom poetry reading, I began restringing the lights, starting with my new LEDs. The box said the lights could be strung out up to 27 feet. So I assumed one string would probably more than cover our tree of modest height and berth. That didn’t prove to be the case – not even close. So I figured, no problem. I’ll just add one of the old strings, which did the trick. Except that the new lights were really bright, and overshadowed the subtlety and mystery of the old PERFECT lights.
After two more trips to Menard’s (don’t ask), and the removal of both the new LED lights and the old muted, mysterious PERFECT lights, I started over with new $3.95 strings of multicolored lights that did the trick, sort of. They still feel too bright, and I realize with regret this morning that Advent will never be the same without our old lights, our old PERFECT lights.
Of course, they weren’t perfect, or they wouldn’t have died.
From what I can see during this particular Advent, a lot of things seem to be dying. A lot of what I’ve known and experienced as “church,” how this country has functioned as a democracy, our perceptions of basic facts, even how we interpret the weather – the old paradigms and mental models for almost everything aren’t working so well anymore. Covid has definitely played a part, and seems to be forcing us into a future that no one is able to name.
Part of me wants to retreat, become a contemplative, turn my life into a hermitage, lay low, keep my head down. Certainly avoid saying anything controversial on this blog. But that would be a waste of your time and mine, whatever time I have left. I suspect none of you needs another devotional to read. I remain passionate about Jesus, and there has never been anyone more controversial. His conception was controversial. His birth was controversial. What he did to his parents on a trip to Jerusalem was controversial. His ministry was controversial from start to finish. His death has always been controversial. The same can be said about his resurrection. His divinity, his humanity, his authority and how he chooses to exercise it, these too have been controversial. Not just Christ but Christians have been controversial, though not always for the best reasons. I’m guessing that if Christ were to come this Advent, what he’d say and do would be controversial for all of us.
Any true mystery invites not just wonder but wrestling. I suspect that when Mary pondered she also wrestled – with her circumstances, her role, and the disparity between what she’d imagined and the actual reality of being the mother of God’s messiah and son. She was certainly more feisty that many of us give her credit for. Like her son, who refused to be boxed in by anyone’s assumptions and expectations.
A lot of people try to box Jesus in with their understanding of what Christians call “the gospel.” For example, their understanding of the gospel may be that it’s God’s PERFECT plan to get people into heaven. But what if that’s not the gospel Jesus taught? I’m not saying the heaven thing isn’t true (far from it), but what if it’s not the actual gospel? What if what many have labeled the gospel is actually more of a sidebar, something quite a bit smaller than Jesus’ gospel, the gospel he refers to in today’s Matthew reading: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited world.... (24:14)?
So what’s the “kingdom?” And what’s our place in it?
I hope you’ll join me in wrestling with these questions. It’s likely to be uncomfortable, and probably controversial.
Like the first Advent. The real one.