“If you boys don’t start behaving, I’m coming down there!”
So my father had loudly promised one evening when I was young. And my father kept his promises. Always.
Growing up, I had both an older and a younger brother–there was a span of about 6-7 years on both sides. Which is to say that, prior to leaving for college, I knew (in a tongue-in-cheek, privileged suburban sort of way) what it was like to be both oppressed and oppressor. (What else are brothers for, right?)
Of course, my father’s promise, given his perfect reliability, should have been an effective deterrent for me. But no.
And herein lies the meaning of Advent. How so?
My father was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper after dinner. My little brother Brooks and I were downstairs in my palatial bedroom, wrestling.
In the dark.
Yeah, I’m not sure why. But, as with most youthful boyish ideas, it made perfect sense at the time.
My brother’s 5-year-old body was being crushed under the weight of 12-year body (and I was especially big for my age), and he gasped, “Dad . . . is . . . going to . . . spank . . . you. Pweez, stop, Bwuuce . . . I . . . can’t . . . BWEEEATH!”
Given my father’s promises, at the mention of his name, all oppression should have ceased. But it didn’t. But it would. Very soon.
Grossly miscalculating (we oppressors inevitably get sloppy), I momentarily rolled off my victim to try to get him into an even more humiliating headlock, but it only gave him the chance to let out a primordial cry of desperation AND to reach for a plastic bat. (Though plastic, let the reader understand, it would nevertheless do the job. Of this fact I have repeated firsthand knowledge.)
At the scream of the oppressed, immediately the chair at the kitchen table upstairs screeeeeeeched back in frustration, followed hard by thunderous footsteps.
The thunderous footsteps of justice.
Both of us were at once gripped with anticipation at my father’s imminent arrival. There were decisions to be made. Quickly.
Would Brooks, the oppressed, use his bat and become an oppressor?
“Hit me!!” I bellowed. (I needed a counter-argument and evidence was sparse.)
Still gasping for breath, he threw the bat from his hand. And waited.
I immediately (and wisely) went into repentance mode: “Ummm . . . Brooks, I’m sorry for almost suffocating you to death. Will you please forgive me? Please?”
Full confession now was my only hope. Who knows? Perhaps Dad would be merciful, if prior to his arrival I had already started to repent.
The stairwell light came to life, under my bedroom door its rays began their invasion, the first signs of a new order.
An order of peace.
. . . . . .
Advent is a time of anticipation and, therefore, a time of crisis–or krisis, ‘decision’ in Greek. Life trajectories are to be ruthlessly re-examined. We must consider the matter carefully, as if everything depended upon it–because it does:
Just who has the upper hand in the human story–and how do we really know?
Through the ancient prophets the Creator, they claimed, had made promises to come one day, bringing justice and peace. But are these promises true?
Does Anyone truly hear–and forever remember–the cries of the oppressed? Will there be justice, and will there be mercy for the truly penitent–i.e., for those who “bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” re-aligning all that they are (even their bodies and bank accounts) without reservation or negotiation to the counter-cultural, counter-intuitive ways of the Creator?
Am I on the right side? (Or is there even a right side?)
These are the soul-searching questions of Advent.
Of course, everyone thinks they’re on the right side. But am I, really?
Consider the sober self-critique of the last of Israel’s ancient prophets:
“‘I [Yahweh] will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?”
Careful what you ask for, says the fearless prophet.
His are undoubtedly good questions. Terrifying questions, to be sure. For who on earth can actually say, “You know, I’m really not part of the problem. Somehow I–and a few others (all, coincidentally, friends of mine)–are . . . actually okay”?
Yeah, seriously. We say this all the time–all be it in subtle, sophisticated, self-excusing ways.
When the 18th-century English evangelist George Whitefield became friends with the Countess of Huntingdon, she mistakenly exposed the preacher to her fellow aristocrats, more than a few of whom were deeply offended by his message, with the Duchess of Buckingham kindly taking the time to express their common grievance to the Countess by letter, a letter which humorously, yet tragically captures in a particular way the sentiments of, well, arguably every last one of us:
“I thank Your Ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preacher”–failing to discern that Whitefield was actually Anglican, not Methodist–but “the [preacher’s] doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their Superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and to do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder that Your Ladyship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.”
The Duchess was most offended by the unqualified inclusivity and egalitarianism of the Christian critique of humanity, and sophisticates of Western culture–indeed, those who champion inclusivity and egalitarianism–continue to keep the Duchess’ grievance alive, if in their own avante-garde exceptionalist ways:
Somehow, they are not part of the problem–or, at least, not nearly as much as “those people.”
Inclusivity and egalitarianism have their limits, apparently.
And if the story of Advent is anything, it is very much–to use the offended Duchess’s words–“at variance with high rank and good breeding.”
And so it is that Advent, with a critique as offensive as it is inclusive, declares that we all–every last one of us–are in darkness, oppressed and oppressing, and that we, in an inexplicable pre-adolescent way, prefer its shadow:
Jesus offensively declared, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
But the comfort of the Advent story is no less inclusive than its critique and is therefore (literally) pregnant with hope.
Hope for every last one of us.
For Jesus also said:
“I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”