Monday, December 17, 2012

Advent: Remaking self and world

Advent is a good season for stories. Last week, I heard a sermon that featured Crockett Johnson's story of Harold and the Purple Crayon (New York: Harper Collins, 1955)), the account of a four year old boy who created his own world using a purple crayon. That story is doubly appropriate for Advent, purple being Advent's traditional liturgical color and God inviting, calling, us to re-create the world and ourselves in God's image through the crayon that is the Holy Spirit.

Our canvas for sketching this re-created world in God's image is certainly not a fresh, blank canvas. Indeed, the canvas is messy, containing jumbled messages, incomplete images, and false starts. Symbolically, the first two readings on the third Sunday of Advent are full of joy (hence the rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath), but the gospel reading calls us to repent (hence the three purple candles).

I, for one, do not associate John the Baptist's stern call to repentance – to stop sinning and turn back to God – with joy. If my sin makes me unhappy, then it's relatively easy to quit. It's when I enjoy sinning that I don't want to quit. The seven deadly sins of pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth are powerful attractors that appear to offer us more pleasure than godliness can. The path to freedom, forgiveness, and healing begins by heeding John's call to repentance, to turn from sin back toward God. If you're caught in sin that you enjoy, now's the time to pick up your crayon. However, if you want to stop sinning and know that you should, but can't, many times a superficial diagnosis of sin masks a much deeper and more complex problem; the inappropriate behavior is symptomatic of another problem, typically addiction or mental illness. In that case, seek help from a priest, physician, or other qualified source.

So working with a messy canvass is realistic. Having a messy canvass permits experimentation, guilt free mistakes, and eliminates the need for perfection. No matter how well you draw, the canvass will remain messy.

Furthermore, working with a messy canvass and a single crayon generally means that less is more. If you draw too much, attempt to finish every detail, then the lines overlap and blur. Broad outlines of this re-created world will work best.

Perhaps you read syndicated columnist Laura Kreutzer's "At Christmas, More Isn't Always More," which ran in last Sunday's newspapers (December 8, 2012). She explains that she prefers extensive Christmas preparations and decorations but that her husband likes a less exuberant, simpler holiday. Consequently, in the past, she has taken primary responsibility for planning, shopping, decorating, and all other preparations. And because she's a year-round gift shopper, she's been able to buy bargains and spend more on gifts than if she only shopped in Advent.

But this year is different. She has two major work projects that consume the time and energy she needs for doing Christmas as usual. Her husband was unwilling to pick up the slack. So, after realizing that what they both really treasured about Christmas was family, they compromised. She identified the two aspects of Christmas that she most values and is limiting her efforts to them; he's agreed to help her with both. In spite of her initial fears that this would ruin Christmas, she's discovered that she's more relaxed and enjoying the season more.

So keeping those two principles in mind (that we're working with a messy canvas and only one color), what exactly does the image of a world re-created in God's image look like? It's not homogenous, that's certain. Collectively, we have many different colors, artistic styles, and visions. Even if several of us choose to draw the same scene, each drawing will be distinctive.

Pope Benedict XVI, with whom I seldom agree, published a new book last month on the Christmas story, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Random House, 2012). The book has attracted attention at least partially because Benedict debunks key elements of Jesus' birth narratives including the date of Jesus' birth (probably several years earlier than our calendars indicate) and argues that the gospels support neither the presence of animals nor angels singing at Jesus' birth. The pope, however, does not call for people to scrap these or other traditions with which Christians have generously embroidered the Christmas story. Instead, he argues that the story should draw us, in my words, ever more deeply into the wonder of transcendent mystery.

Laura Kreutzer and her husband have the right idea, perhaps without realizing it. Why is Christmas important? Because of family, but family in a broadly inclusive sense. Christmas is important because in the birth of a child some two thousand years ago people experienced, and continue to experience, the wonder of the transcendent mystery of God's love, a love that transforms death into abundant life, a love that restores health and energy to the exhausted, a love that heals brokenness, a love that accepts just as we are, regardless of who we are, what we have done, thought, or said. Christmas is important because God reaches out to embrace with a love that never lets go the family that begins with our immediate family and extends to our church, to our community, and eventually to the whole world.

So, this Advent and Christmas let's ditch the guilt. Let's quit using Advent and Christmas to try to prove our love, or multi-tasking productiveness, or anything else to ourselves or loved ones. Instead, take up your messy sheet of paper, your single crayon, and sketch a few lines – but only a few – that re-create the world in the image of God's wondrous, transcendent, mysterious love, a love revealed in the story of a child's birth. And then do what Harold did: step into that re-created world, becoming the person God created you to be. Amen.

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