Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Advent? What the heck are we waiting for?

Last week, I was asked to speak at my church, Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, about my thoughts on Advent. Having recently become an atheist, I was concerned that my thoughts might not be received that well. But, as I discovered when I gave this talk, atheism is alive and well--even in church. MCC strives to be a multifaith organization, and it attracts people from every religious stripe--even those with no religion per se. My discussion opened a dialogue, and the atheists in church came rushing out of their closets. Richard Dawkins would be proud.


When I was a child, December was all about anticipation. I spent the entire month, from Thanksgiving on, looking forward to Christmas. But, of course, my sense of expectation had nothing to do with Christianity per se, or even Jesus. What I spent the month waiting for was presents.

I would scour toy ads in the newspaper, circle the items I wanted, and not so discreetly leave the clippings where my parents would see them. This was sometime after my belief in Santa Claus had faded: I knew it was my parents I had to work on, and that no one was checking to see whether I was naughty or nice. Besides, I was always nice. I deserved everything I wanted.

And sometimes I actually got it. On one particular Christmas morning, I got spoiled more rotten than usual. At one point, surrounded by toys and a pile of discarded wrapping paper as high as a snowdrift, my mother passed me another present and I started to cry. “No more!” I wailed, exhausted. Now really, what child complains that he has too many toys? I still haven’t figured out what that moment says about me.

But it does say something about Christmas. I spent a month waiting for toys, a month of delicious anticipation, imagining the moment when I would walk up to the tree and find the mound of brightly colored boxes with my name on them; imagining the toys that would litter the floor that afternoon as I ran from one to the other as my interest waxed and waned. I spent a month wanting. And then I got what I wanted. And it was too much.

Too much, or not enough? Was I in despair because I thought I didn’t quite deserve such largesse? Or was I upset rather because it wasn’t enough? Because what I really needed was something that didn’t come in a box.

It wasn’t until my twenties that I really understood that—long after the toys had dried up and my presents became more pedestrian things, like sweaters and books and Madonna albums. (The other Madonna, not the one in the Christmas story.) As an adult, I was no longer looking through a glass darkly: I saw the truth, face to face. Christmas, in my parents’ home, was inevitably about presents and food. That was how my parents showed their love: my mother bought us things, and my father cooked. And they fought. Every Christmas, like clockwork, they fought. But why should Christmas be different from any other day?

We watched Charlie Brown and listened to Linus tell the story of the baby Jesus. We even went to church on Christmas Eve, now and then, and sang the hymns. I fell in love with the story of Jesus, but I saw it only as a story. I think I always saw it only as a story—no truer, in a literal sense, than Homer’s Odyssey, or Peter Pan. I got presents for Christmas, more than I needed, more than I wanted. What I didn’t get was peace. What I didn’t get was a true sense of connection, the image of family I watched every week on The Waltons. Ultimately, Christmas was hollow. And in my twenties, I began to dread it—the long flight back east to visit a squabbling family, where the Christmas spirit was as much a myth as Santa Claus himself.

Frankly, I don’t understand Advent. If God is eternal, then what are we waiting for? If the Messiah has already come, why do we need to watch the clock for his arrival every year? And if the Christmas spirit fills the world only on December 25, then what’s the point?

Life, they say, is what happens when you’re making other plans. And I have always had lots of plans. I would be happy, I thought, when I moved into a bigger home. And I was, for a few hours. I would be happy when I published my first novel. And I was, for a few days. I would be happy when I fell in love. And I was, until it ended. … So I would be happy the next time I fell in love. And I was, until that ended. And then the next one … well, you get the picture.

The achievement of each goal merely led me to another goal. And I found that I was constantly living for the future, constantly waiting. Every season was advent. I was making plans, hoping for the future, and in the meantime, life was passing before my eyes.

Waiting—hoping, imagining a happy future—is, in the end, a distraction. If I focus on the happiness to come, I won’t have to think about what’s wrong in the present. Hoping gives me permission to be lazy. All I have to do is wait, and one day I’ll be happy.

Well, ultimately, it doesn’t work like that. Ultimately, the present is all we have, and I am responsible for mine. The present is where the future comes from. It doesn’t come from a star hovering over a stable, or a deity dropping down from a cloud for 33 years, or staying on the cloud and listening to prayers.

In the end, this moment—now … and now … and now—is all we have. We don’t need to wait for Christmas. We have our present already.

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At 8:38 AM , Blogger Makarios said...

That is really, really good advice. Thoughts of both the future and the past rob of joy. Now, in this moment, and this one, and this one is where we need to concentrate.

On the other hand, the promise of,

"Peace on earth to all those on whom His favour rests," is as true, as true as anything I've ever experienced. You can know that peace if you want.

Good luck on your journey.


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