What We Want for Christmas
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
What do we really want this Christmas? I suspect most of us have the same things on our wish list this year. We want human contact with someone outside our household, a shared meal around the same table, a gift or two that we don’t have to buy for ourselves. We want the seats that will be empty this year to be filled with their rightful occupants. We want to keep the traditions that tell us who we are and hold us together.
It doesn’t seem like too much to ask, but for many of us – it won’t all be possible. The need to keep each other safe may outweigh what we have every right to want. For those of us in nursing homes or hospitals, or those whose families already live far away, our exile might not end by Christmas. We all know more about exile this year than we ever wanted to, more about the pain of being far from the people and places we love. Many of you have been exiled from this worship space for close to a year now, and for good and practical reasons that might not end soon either. And, of course, for those of us who have lost loved ones to COVID or for any other reason, no amount of effort on our part will bring us all the comfort we long for.
So, let’s be honest - does it even matter what we want? Since when is wanting something a spiritual practice? Grown-ups aren’t supposed to want things. We should practice gratitude and be content with what we have, right? We all know the argument, even if it never quite works. There are billions of people who lack the basic necessities that we in this country take for granted. Who are we to complain about what we want when they don’t have what they need? And yet, this season of Advent is not just about waiting or repenting or preparing. It’s also about what we long for, what we yearn for –and yes, what we want. What we want tells us something critical about who we are and who we’re becoming.
Take the hymn that’s been our connecting thread these last few weeks. In the verses each week, we hear words like: “O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here…disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight…bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace…” These words from over a thousand years ago not only express our longings; they give our yearnings shape and substance. They point us away from greed and pride, from our obligations and our obsessions with achievement; they point us toward the things in life that are worth wanting.
That’s part of what the prophets are about too – folks like Isaiah and John the Baptist. They do more than just curse the darkness. In the words of today’s Gospel, they also “testify to the light.” Of all the prophets, perhaps none gives us better language for our longings than Isaiah. When Jesus, centuries later, was looking for words to name what he yearned for, he borrowed today’s words from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…”
In the case of Isaiah’s first audience, they knew in their bones what exile felt like. They had been taken against their will to a foreign land. In the process, they lost their homes, their businesses, their temple, all the gathering spaces they knew and loved. The places and institutions that told them who they were as a people were all in ruins. And yet here, Isaiah does more than just name their yearning. Yes, they’re oppressed by their situation, their hearts are broken, they’ve been held captive for far too long. But there is more to them than that. They’re neither victims in God’s eyes nor objects of pity. No, they are, in Isaiah’s words, “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.”
Here Isaiah promises comfort to all who mourn –not just to his first audience, but to all of us who follow. What makes these promises more than just words? Well, a few things. First, note that comfort here is not the result of their effort, their wishing, their remembering. It’s a gift from God – one that comes in God’s time and in God’s own way, often through the actions of God’s very imperfect followers. Any comfort that comes merely from what we can talk ourselves into doesn’t sound like comfort to me. I personally need the peace that passes all understanding to come from somewhere other than my diligence, and that is what is offered here.
But there’s more to it than that. Look at what these oppressed, broken-hearted captives do next. We’re told that they are the ones who will repair the ruins, raise up the former devastations, rebuild the ruined cities. In other words, their pain, while real, doesn’t disqualify them from what happens next. Perhaps it’s in the rebuilding that they – and we – will find our shared meaning and purpose again. Perhaps this is how they - and we - will honor all that’s been lost in this time of exile.
Finally, I’m comforted by the image of growth that Isaiah leaves with us. We might end up being “oaks of righteousness” someday, but oak trees don’t look like oaks at first. Their initial appearance as acorns is no measure of their power or their worth; it can take years, even lifetimes for what they really are to be revealed. Perhaps there is more strength and beauty and resilience within us too than anyone can imagine. What we truly are has not yet been revealed either.
So, my prayer for all of us this Advent: May we take the time to discern what we really want this Christmas. May we let the ancient words of our hymns and our Scriptures shape what we want – and may those yearnings shape who we are and what we’re becoming. In the Name of the One who planted more within us than we can see or imagine – Amen.