Second Sunday of Advent

We tend to like our routines. It’s our stress-free auto-pilot setting meant to help us coast through life with the bare minimum inconvenience, attention, and effort. We will take a great deal of time and energy establishing our routines, some of which go all the way back to college, and some even farther back to childhood. For instance many of us establish early on which kinds of snacks and beverages we like best, whether we’re morning people or night owls or some unique combination, and whether we stick religiously to deadlines or prefer to procrastinate. Some of us even have a favorite pew in church. Unfortunately the pandemic may have messed that up. If you have a favorite pew and have come back to church, either you learned quickly to get over having a favorite pew or you’re still annoyed and are plotting your next move. Clearly we like our routines. And we tend not to deviate from patterns we have spent a great deal of time and energy establishing. And these last few months have forced us to do a lot of adjusting as it is. In many areas of life, we are eager to regain some personal control.

The holidays are no exception. Pick a holiday—Christmas, Fourth of July, Super Bowl, Easter, Halloween, New Year. Some people will rearrange their furniture and decorate for the occasion. Some will prepare meals following family recipes going back generations. Some will plan to sit in front of the TV for hours to watch a football game or ring in the new year with the ball drop in Times Square. Some will fill the air with holiday music and put on a festive attire. Now some of these traditions we just picked up where others before us left off. A few we created to keep extended family happy. The rest we decided from seeing it done on TV or so we don’t feel left out. And it’s all part of our overall stress-free auto-pilot setting meant to help us coast through life with the bare minimum inconvenience, attention, and effort.

Enter the global pandemic. We generously let Lent and Easter slide thinking our willing sacrifice and self-restraint will get us back on track come fall. We were deeply saddened when we had to give up spring sports and commencement exercises and mid-week stress breaks and weekend socials and Sunday dinner at grandma’s and pick-up games at the Y and spontaneous outings with friends to the movies, dancing, dinner, drinks, and the mall, the beach, theme parks, ocean liner cruises, air travel, summer getaways, and basically life as we knew it. And last Thanksgiving we were told to sit tight and visit with our loved ones online, causing what national resolve we still had to crumble. Cabin fever took its toll, and now we face a long bleak winter ahead. It just also happens to be Advent and Christmas. And we are left to wonder what becomes of our distinct seasonal religious and cultural traditions. Well, we can choose to hang on to them, to pretend it is a formidable show of defiance against the darkness. We can choose to believe we will return one day to the romanticized normal we cling to and pine for. Or we can take the opportunity to create new traditions or at least tweak old ones so they more truly reflect the reality we live in and help refocus our energies, our joy, and our lives on what we truly value.

The sacred author whom scripture scholars call Deutero-Isaiah addresses Judean exiles in Babylon, telling them that their God remembers his covenant with them and will restore Israel to the land of their ancestors. Their infidelities and their rejection of the prophets God sent them were clearly the cause of their defeat in battle and their delivery into exile. But God is compassionate and has seen fit to bring the suffering of his people to an end. The way back to freedom and restoration to their own land will happen by a direct and clear path unlike the meandering desert routes that drove them into exile. “Announce glad tidings to Jerusalem! Your God comes in power and splendor, with great mercy and tender care like a shepherd who feeds his flock.”

Most of us can speak from experience of how trials and suffering, as much as we despise and avoid them, will force transformation and maturity upon a relationship. And the more worthwhile the relationship, the greater the transformation and the more significant the level of maturity we can attain. Some naïve and impractical picture will probably still pop in our heads when we imagine a more innocent time, but we cannot deny that we have to return to the reality we live in. Charles Dickens made three ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge just so he recognize his own misery and the misery he inflicted on others. But he had to return to the reality he lived in, the reality he created, and only then bring transformation and growth in maturity to his own life and the lives of others.

We look back upon this past year and begin by mourning our losses, people we love who have died or moved away or whose company we miss very badly, friendships that have regretfully ended, reports of illness and misfortune that we cannot fix or lay to rest, important milestones we failed to mark or celebrate, missed opportunities—our own or of those dear to us, dreams we postponed, and hopes still awaiting fulfilment. For these we can pause in silent prayer and light some candles. Or we can write a word or a simple wish on a strip of colored paper to string together and hang on the tree with our other ornaments, or to line the manger for the baby Jesus. It compares to Israel’s return home from exile. Our losses are not denied or diminished, but we permit ourselves to come home. For as long as we cling to our hurts and our losses, we remain in exile.

John the Baptist is the “voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” This announcement of glad tidings is joyful because more than ever we long for our exhaustion to be relieved and our fears to be dispelled. The good news is that the Lord comes to fulfill our hopes and all the ancient promises. It is an opportunity for new beginnings, a time for rejoicing and gladness, a time for proclaiming grander hopes and fulfilling even more awesome dreams. We can draw parallels here to the rejoicing and gladness that comes when we give presents to people. But do we even remember the presents we gave last year? What has become of them? Did they bring any lasting effect in anyone’s life?

Gift-giving is without a doubt deeply rooted in the culture of this holiday season. But we can intentionally transform the experience and give it deeper meaning. Write down what you gave and pray for the person you gave it to, not once, but many times in the coming year. You might remind yourself more often that this person is God’s gift to you. And the exercise will prepare you for next year. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” John the Baptizer calls out to us. The more worthwhile the relationship, the greater the transformation and the more significant the level of maturity we are likely to attain.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020