Six years ago this week I put in my first official day on the job at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Carmel. The rector of 18 years had just left, and the vestry was still trying to line up an interim pastor to lead them through searching for his replacement. My title was “Assisting Priest,” although it was not exactly clear who I was assisting, since I was the only priest on the staff—everybody, I guess. We got through Christmas somehow, which was followed by the beginning of a string of big funerals, as all the old pillars of the community had seemingly conspired to die at once. And when February came, it brought with it the interim pastor, a fine old Texas warhorse of the Episcopal Church named John, who agreed to come out of retirement and drive down from San Jose every Sunday morning, staying until Tuesday afternoon.
On Mondays John and I would sit down together for an hour or so and compare notes. He hadn’t been there long, maybe a month, when I came to him with a problem. Some folks in the parish had been talking, apparently, about the trouble and expense of the search for a new rector: the formation of a Search Committee, the congregational self-study and creation of a parish profile, the interviews and more interviews. They observed that they might go through this lengthy, laborious process and still end up with someone that it turned out they really didn’t like. And they already knew someone they did like, someone of (relative) youthfulness, with a charming, attractive wife and an adorable little girl, someone who was already there, and available at a bargain price. They already had me. Why not just make me the new rector and be done with it?
I’d caught wind of this, but hadn’t taken it very seriously, until the Senior Warden of the parish came into my office and proposed it as the new plan. I knew it was a bad idea, so I wasn’t tempted—not much anyway—but I needed to talk to John. As I’d expected, he thought it was a really bad idea, and walked me through all the reasons why. I won’t go through the litany, but there was one paramount reason that is relevant to this season of Advent and the scriptures we read this morning, and that is this:
One of the great benefits of the interim period between pastors is precisely the uncertainty, the not-knowing about the future that the people of All Saints’ were trying to avoid. For eighteen years their sense of themselves as a Christian community had been formed around the personality of their rector. With him gone, they had to rediscover who they were. Without anyone to tell them what they wanted, what was important, what was their part in God’s mission in the world, they had to wonder about it for themselves, and not just for a minute, but for a good while. They had to remember how to wonder, and wait, and hope.
John and I agreed that I had to say no to the Senior Warden’s offer clearly and emphatically, and to explain why. I suggested that it might be best to follow up on that by communicating something to the parish as a whole. John agreed, and then said, “It would be best if it came from you.” So I published an open letter in the next church newsletter thanking the people of All Saints’ for the complement, but explaining why I was not going to be their next rector, and encouraging them to use the time of waiting that lay before us to good use.
That’s kind of what John the Baptist is doing in the passage we heard from John’s Gospel today. People keep coming to him asking him who is he is, and he keeps telling them to forget about him—that he is not the point. His purpose is to get them ready for the one who is coming after him, to set them to the work of wondering, and waiting, and hoping. Looking for evidence, pressing to draw conclusions, making bets on this person or that person--all these kinds of activities will only confirm them in their opinions, which is to say their ignorance. Someone is coming, is in fact already among them, but he is someone they do not know.
We are now in the heart of Advent, the season of the church year dedicated to complaining about what our popular culture has done to Christmas. I have to admit to being sympathetic to the “what’s wrong with Christmas” party, but not for the reasons that are usually given. Many people grouse about how it starts too early, with seasonal decorations and musk appearing in the stores and the advertising media on Thanksgiving Day, if not before. The reason they usually give for why that’s bad is simply that it makes everyone fed up with Christmas before it ever arrives. And I understand that criticism—I want people to come to church on Christmas Eve and sing “O come, all ye faithful” with joy and triumph, not an inward groan of “not this again.”
But there’s a bigger price we pay than just “Christmas burnout.” By jumping immediately into Christmas, we lose Advent. And I don’t think Advent is something we can afford to lose. I say that not as a traditionalist, like “The church calendar says there are four weeks of Advent. It’s a tradition, by God, and it must be preserved.” And I don’t say it as a moralist, like “people these days are all about instant gratification—can’t they restrain themselves?” No, I say we need Advent because I care deeply about Christmas. And if we don’t understand waiting, wondering, watching and hoping, we don’t understand Christmas at all.
Now at this point my fellow Christmas grumps are going to jump in and start agreeing with me all over the place. “You’re right!” they’ll say, “the true meaning of Christmas is forgotten— it’s not about Santa Claus, and presents under a tree, and vestiges of pagan winter solstice celebrations—Jesus is the reason for the season”. They have a point, of course, but that’s not quite what I’m trying to say, and in a way it’s just another form of the problem that Advent is meant to address, which is that we think we already know what we’re waiting for. As if once the big day comes the drama is over. As if Christmas erases every trace of Advent. As if the waiting and hoping and wondering were just a game to test our patience, and not an ongoing aspect of the Christian mystery. As if the coming of the Christ child was the end of the story and not the beginning of it.
“Among you stands one whom you do not know”, says John the Baptist, and those are words we need to remember. If we think we know who it is that is coming to be among us, we’ve forgotten what it is like to look into the face of a newborn child. If we think that we don’t have time to wait, or need to wonder, or anything more to hope for, we’ve forgotten how to dream. The church year is a Mandela in time, a circular image of the whole of reality— the whole is present in each part, and each part is in the whole. Advent is the place on the circle when take the coming of Christ out of the past and put it in our future. It is the season when we remember that we are always wondering, always waiting, always hoping. If we can’t manage that, even for four weeks, can we still say we know what we hope for? If we think we already know who it is that stands among us, can we be sure that it is Jesus Christ? I encourage us to find a little time, in what remains to us of this Advent, for waiting on God, for wondering who is coming, for hoping for his justice, liberation, mercy, and grace.