An Advent story by Susanna Rodell
When my grandson was born, it was not under ideal circumstances. My daughter and her boyfriend were living in New York City, a couple of young adults trying to find their way in the world, emerging from a few years of punk-rock rebellion and consumption of controlled substances. An aspiring chef, Ryan had landed a job as a sous-chef at one of the nation’s top French restaurants. My daughter was trying to finish college and working for a literary agent. Then she got pregnant. They decided to return to North Carolina where I was living at the time. New York was no place to raise a baby, and they wanted to be close to family. My daughter wanted to be close to her mama. There was only one problem with this. I was struggling to raise her two little sisters and I was out of a job. After a long search, I finally found one – but it was in West Virginia. I did make it back down to Chapel Hill on the September night when Felix was born, but I soon had to return to my new job, leaving my daughter to cope with new motherhood and loneliness as well. Ryan got a job as a chef, at a lot less pay than his old one in New York. They lived in a tiny house; as winter set in they struggled. Money was tight.
One evening at the beginning of a cold and dismal December, Ryan had just been paid and he wanted to do something nice to cheer my daughter up. He decided to surprise her with a nice bottle of wine. He stopped at the wine store on the way home from work and picked out a bottle for her. At $16 he could just afford it. He paid the cashier with a $20 bill and took the changed without looking at it. He walked back to his car, imagining her surprise at the unusual treat, imagining seeing his baby boy again. He went to put the change in his pocket and noticed something odd. Three bills, which is what he expected from a $16-plus-tax purchase–but not the three ones he assumed. Instead, a one, a five and a ten. It took him a minute to figure it out. The cashier had made a mistake. Instead of change from a $16-plus-tax purchase, she had instead given him the price of the wine. Sweet! Ryan thought. He’d been a bit worried about spending that much anyway – now he could bring home a good bottle of wine for only $3 and change!
Again his thoughts turned to his new family. He thought about how much harder it all was than he possibly could have imagined. He thought about the baby boy. He thought about being a dad. What does he need from me? He asked himself. What kind of a dad does he need? A good person, he thought. He thought again about the wine. He also thought about the cashier. At the end of the evening she would come up short. She’d get in trouble–maybe even lose her job. Ryan got out of the car, went back to the store and explained to the cashier that she’d made a mistake. And he went back to his family a different guy.
I think about this story at Advent every year, not just because it happened in that season, but because it makes so much sense to me of the story of our God appearing in the world, not as a terrifying figure ready to scare us out of our state of sin with a fistful of threatening thunderbolts, but as a defenseless baby, whose power works in a wholly different way.
There’s a beautiful carol I used to sing as a kid, part of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, called This Little Babe, that describes the power of the baby Jesus: One of the verses goes like this: With tears he fights and wins the field, His naked breast stands for a shield, His battering shots are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes; His martial ensigns cold and need, And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.
Think about it: that tiny baby had the power, from the other side of town, to reach into Ryan’s heart and turn him around. To say: don’t be selfish. Be a good man. Do this for me. THIS is how our God works. He does not come to strike terror into our hearts. He comes as something small and precious and vulnerable, as all children come, demanding not our fear but our protection, demanding that we be our best selves, for his sake. Amen.
Susanna’s story invites us to look at life by taking into account babies and all the little ones of the world. She shows how different the world looks when we take time to look at the world and life through eyes for which the little ones matter. She reminds us that Jesus doesn’t come to us as a terrifying figure ready to scare us out of our state of sin with a fistful of threatening thunderbolts, but as a defenseless baby. It’s important to remember that when we hear this morning’s Gospel. Many have interpreted the apocalyptic texts of the New Testament to mean precisely the opposite. They say that the first time Jesus came as a baby, but that he is coming back as a tyrant who will treat unbelievers the same way all tyrants treat their enemies.
Which God do we meet in Jesus Christ? The New Testament’s image shows a stark contrast to the darkness of our human violence that has been so wrongly attributed to God. We humans are the ones who put our faith in superior firepower, not God. In Matthew’s Gospel and Noah’s story, the ones taken are those who get caught up in a rising tide of violence without even noticing it. Those left behind are actually the ones who resist getting swept away by violence, and remain faithful to God. They stay awake to recognizing Jesus in the hungry, the stranger, the sick and the imprisoned.
Advent is the season in which we focus on preparing for God’s coming. But we prepare for very different ways of being in history depending on our view of Jesus. One view makes the powerful’s victory over the powerless as a sign of God’s coming. The other sees caring for the victims of violence as the primary spiritual practice to prepare God’s coming. It matters greatly which way we prepare.
Advent calls us to wake up to God’s call; to invest in the long haul of building the project that Jesus initiated. As one writer puts it, “In Advent, God breaks through the clutter of our lives to announce to us that God’s Presence is very near, irrupting into our midst, hauling us out of our half-truths and the ways we have settled for what is religious rather than what is holy, alive and real… Someone wants to speak to us. The oomph behind the ‘isness’ of everything that is wants to invite us into the fullness of a project.” (Christian Century, James Alison, November 13, 2007, p. 19) Reinhold Niebuhr says: "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love."
So, what does it take to wake up? Noah’s, Jesus’ and Susanna’s stories all indicate that it has to do with paying attention to what matters most, and doing so in the most faithful way. Everyone is looking for something, but we don’t always notice the right things. Sometimes we’re looking for the right things in the wrong way. At other times we feel things that scare us so much we try to repress them. In Noah’s time most people were not noticing the right things. Noah was. He knew enough to come in out of the rain and listen to God. That made him more frightened, not less. What about Jesus’ story of the one in the field or grinding meal who watched their partners be swept away while they stayed where they were? And what of Susanna’s son-in-law who returned the change to the cashier because of his baby. What are they all listening to? What makes them ready for the coming of the Son of Man?
In this advent season of history there are clues about what to watch for and how to watch. We have to watch for what really matters and stick with it so we don’t get swept away by the temptation to commit violence to defend ourselves or with pleasure to help us escape reality. Do we pay attention to words about taking care of all Americans or appointments that reveal a pattern of excluding certain groups? Do we watch the direction of the stock market or the broken campaign promises? Are we alert to every alarm sounded about outsiders who might attack us, or to those already at the top who undermine our core values? Do we take time in the midst of it all to enjoy the moment that is full of joy and meaning, or keep so busy regretting the past and feeling anxious about the future that we miss it?
There’s a scene in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town that highlights the need to see things differently. A young woman named Emily dies at the age of 26. In the construct of the play she is able to ask the stage manager narrating the play if she can turn the clock back to have a brief visit with her family. He grants her the wish, advising her to choose the least important day in her life -- which "will be important enough," he says. She chooses to return on her 12th birthday, only to find her father obsessed with his business problems and her mother preoccupied with kitchen duties. Emily exclaims, "Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I’m dead!" Unable to rouse her parents, Emily breaks down sobbing. "We don’t have time to look at one another. . . Goodbye world! Goodbye, Mama and Papa. . . Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it - every minute?"
It’s the incapacity to attend to the important things in life that brings urgency to Advent. We sleep through God’s signals of alarm and act as if today is like every other day. But if we’re casual with today, what chance is there that we’ll be careful with our lives? What hope is there that we can live less selfishly and more peacefully? In an attempt to rock us out of these complacent ways of living and believing Jesus presents us with a most dreadful picture - an intruder stepping into our bedroom while we’re sound asleep. "f the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and wouldn’t have let his house be broken into. The very fear of that nighttime break-in is the cause for changing our thinking, adjusting our priorities.
Pretending to be asleep, pretending to be blind, won’t work. With eyes open, we must proclaim our hope that God and goodness are greater than the deepest despair and the most despicable evil; our faith in a God who always saves us from final judgment; and our love for one who wipes every tear from our eyes. It is up to us to choose which god we will await during Advent, and how we will act in response to that God. What will you choose?