Away in the What?

Matt. 24:37-44

“Away in a manger, no crib for his bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” Probably the first song I learned in Sunday school was “Away in the Manger”. It is sweet, simple and a lullaby. The purpose of the song is to create a sense of calm and gentleness. Children have been taught that song for as long as I can remember. As adults we love to hear them sing it. Their voices are fresh and eager, naive and earnest.

Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, my son, Chris, put up our Christmas tree, and my wife put out the crèche (or as my Methodist parents called it, “The Manger Scene.”) We are preparing for Christmas.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the season in which you and I prepare our hearts for the incarnation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. The Gospel text which the high priests of the lectionary have chosen for today is one in which we are sternly warned to “WAKE UP” and “BE READY” for the coming of the Son of Man. “You are going to have to choose. How you choose will make a difference.” This thinking is right in line with the other passages that we have had over the previous three or four weeks.  

What I find intriguing is that in this passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus refers to two attitudes towards life that are found in two differing types of literature. When Jesus talks about the days of Noah, Jesus is citing legend. It is a legend about life in the time of Noah. The legend points toward human behavior that is sybaritic, narcissistic and hedonistic. Excessive emphasis is placed upon the pleasures of the flesh. Eating, drinking and marriage pleasure are the summum bonum of life, the be all and end of all of “the good life.”  According to this legend, God punished mankind by sending a flood that was far more destructive than Katrina that hit New Orleans. The fact that this story is a legend does not mean that we should hold it in contempt for being a legend. Not at all, for it points to the ultimate futility of excessive self-gratification behavior. Such behavior is immoral and destructive of religion, individuals and society. 

The second type of literature to which Jesus refers is wisdom literature. Such literature is found in the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and some of the Psalms. It is literature that contains observations on life. The image of two women grinding meal together and one taken and one left is almost verbatim out of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity. All is vanity.” Much of wisdom literature tends to be fatalistic, negative, stoic and cynical. Life is tough. First you live and then you die. You are a victim of fortune and despair is an appropriate response. In many ways it reminds me of Albert Camus’ The Plague, a novel written after WWII, which presented the philosophy of French existential philosophers. You are born. Life is meaningless. It lacks real values. You are slightly better off than a bug.

Jesus’ response to these two differing attitudes (over indulgence or despair) is to present a message of hope based on decision and judgment. The coming of the Son of Man will always catch us by surprise. When faced with critical times you and I are given the opportunity to choose and to respond to God’s overtures to us. 

Now what occurs to me is that we have in this passage from Matthew a paradigm, or model for our responses to the coming of Christmas. We have in our culture now something called “Black Friday.” I thought that phrase referred to a stock market crash. But no. It refers to the Friday right after Thanksgiving. It is the day in which retail stores gauge how their holiday seasonal sales will be. Hence the stores open at four in the morning and run frantic sales of their goodies. You and I are encouraged to buy, buy, buy. It is not, “Sleepers awake!” It is, “Shoppers awake!” Shades of Noah’s sons!

I think all of us feel pulled in the direction of buying gifts and giving gifts that will bring pleasure both to the receiver and to the giver. My own family has yielded to this pressure from time to time. In fact, we are going to have twenty persons at our house for Christmas! Isn’t that great? And we are all going to give gifts! Unfortunately I am mathematically challenged but you figure out how many gifts there would be if we each bought twenty gifts to give to the twenty who will be there. (400?) As a result, my wife and her sister-in-law run scenarios for gift giving. “We could all pull one name from a hat.” Or, We could limit giving to our immediate family,” they tell us. But, hey, I like to get gifts. That is okay for the other people but I want a gift from each of the twenty; after all, I’m the host and giving is good, especially if I am the recipient. Could it be that I am a true son of Noah?

Maybe not. For many years I have stopped going to Target, or Wal-Mart or other stores at Christmas time because I cannot bear to see people pushing shopping carts around that are overloaded with plastic goodies and clothing made in China. Most of the stuff is cheap and bespeaks an urge to fill a void, a desire to make up for a hole that is in the family relationships and the soul. Thirty years ago we had Christmases like that. The whole family would gather at our house and we could barely get into the living room because it was stuffed with gifts. One of the relatives always had to go over the top, and the year I remember is when all of the gifts had been exchanged, he set a new standard for giving. He gave a suede coat with a mink collar to my wife, her sister and my mother-in-law. We were all stunned. He was trying to atone for years misspent. He wanted so badly to erase poor choices. His family didn’t want gifts. They just wanted him to be well and to let us love him. 

The other attitude towards Christmas is one that my mother had, and that many of us have. It is one of despair. “Vanity. All is vanity.” The expectations of love and joy and good times are too painful for us to bear. Christmas was the hardest time of the year for my mother because her mother was born on Christmas day and had died tragically. My mother dearly missed my grandmother. Mother suffered from what psychologists call “the Christmas blues.” I suffer from them as well. At Christmas for years I have always wanted to just go off by my self and sit alone in a room. I feel like one of the wisdom writers, “Life is lousy; all is futile; some have a good time and then it is over. Vanity. All is vanity.”

Those of you who embrace a “Kincaid Christmas” and the Hallmark fun of kitsch and festivities, please be tender to those of us who suffer. We are genuinely in pain.

You and I do not need to embrace either the bacchanalian excesses of Noah’s time or the despair of the picture of the two women grinding meal, waiting for one of them to die. We cannot help feeling pulled between the two poles of attitudes (excess or despair) in our preparations for Christmas. During Advent we cannot help but feel stress and anxiety as the Christmas season comes closer and closer upon us.  

There is, however, a third way to approach Christmas, and that is to come to the manger. In Advent come to the manager and wait. Wait for the story to unfold. Lay up your hopes and aspirations, your trials and tribulations before the manager. Wait. In your heart say, “Here I am God. Take all of me. Let me awaken to your promise and your gift. Take my packages of anxiety and stress, fear and regret, emptiness and confusion. Wrap them in the swaddling garments of your compassion and love, your hope and grace. Help me to wake up to the glory of your graciousness and the splendor of your face.” 

These Sundays in Advent, prepare to bring your heart to the manager scene, and to bring the hearts of others to that manger, in a stable in a small town in a far distant place. We do that through our prayers, through our scriptural readings, through our liturgy, through our outreach and through our piety. It mattereth not if we don’t have the perfect Christmas tree, guest list, or gifts. What does matter is that we bring our hearts and souls to the manger, to the incarnation of God’s love. What matters is that we direct our lives towards that which is most positive, creative and recreative, affirming and reaffirming – namely God’s gift of Himself in the innocence of a newborn babe and the incarnation of complete forgiveness and compassion. What matters most is that you and I share that love and compassion in how we live with ourselves and with one another. It mattereth not if our lives are not perfect. What does matter is how we treat ourselves and one another before the grace and beauty of God our Father as found in the child of the Virgin Mary. 

So today, this first Sunday in Advent, when we light the first Advent candle, lay aside your concerns and come to the manager. This and every day allow your child-like innocence to bring you to where “the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” And “The stars in heavens look down where he lays, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.” This Advent, this day, this Christmas come to the manager. Amen. Fr. Gage.