Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. ~ Mark 13:35
I lived my early elementary years in a small agriculture community in Central Washington. From June through August the town revolved around the cherry harvest and from August to November the community centered on the apple harvest.
After the harvest seasons, we turned our eyes towards Thanksgiving and Christmas. There was a real sense of abundance, literally and figuratively in Grandview, Washington. Migrant farm workers passing through intermingled seamlessly with the local population, and we lived together.
I loved walking downtown during the holiday season. The local merchants decorated their storefront windows with Christmas trees, nativity scenes, angels on high, and sleds, winter coats, stocking hats, and the latest houseware for the new year. Christmas lights ran up and down Main Street and my favorite thing of all was the public sound system which broadcast “Deck the Halls,” “Joy to the World,” “White Christmas,” the “Little Drummer Boy,” “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and “Silent Night.”
I walked lightly through town with my friends while singing Christmas music after school. The Spirit of the season was in the air; it was the most wonderful time of the year. All was good and the best harvest was coming on Christmas Day.
Day after day Sammy, Rudi, Robbie, and I walked downtown, looked at the decorative storefronts, and listened to the songs of Christmas. One song though always made me happy and pause with fear and anxiety at the same time. The artist sang, “You better watch out, You better not cry, You better not pout… He’s making a list, He’s checking it twice, He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.”
My friends and I knew the rules of Christmas. If we were good during the year (a long time to mess up), we would get presents on Christmas day, and if we were naughty, we’d get a chunk of coal. As a five-, six-, and seven-year-old kid I took this quite seriously resulting in a fair amount of anxiety and fear.
I was a good kid, but be good for an entire year? I forgot about every other week, despite repeated warnings from my parents, to take the trash out to the curb. I usually did not clean up the yard of dog waste before my dad mowed. I joined the other kids at school and made fun of little Rodney until he cried. I got in a shouting match with my sister at the tennis courts and used some “adult” words to tell her how I felt. She tattled on me to our mother.
I thought I was a pretty good kid most of the time, but how much wiggle room was there between getting a “lump of coal” or a “new three speed bike” for Christmas?
Imagine my consternation when I went to Grandview United Methodist Church during the Advent Season, and I heard the minister read, “Beware… Be alert… You do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or a midnight, or at a cock crow, or in the morning,” (see Mark 13:33-35).
Father Richard Rohr comments, “Most of us probably hear such a passage as if it were threatening or punitive, as if Jesus is saying, ‘You better do it right, or I’m going to get you.’ But Jesus is not talking about a judgment. He’s not threatening us or talking about death. He’s talking about the forever coming of Christ, the eternal coming of Christ… now… now… and now…” Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love are forever “birthing” into our lives and our world.
I do not remember exactly what the minister said but I left church with conflicting messages as a child. Our Sunday school teacher (and my parents, Thank God) said, “God loves us all the time,” and somewhere I picked up the message, “God loves us if….” I heard echoes of the song, “He’s making a list, He’s checking it twice, He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.”
Do we live out of fear of eternal punishment if we are not always good, or do we live out of the abundant love of the birth of Christ into our world?
Brennan Manning quotes Thomas Merton’s solution, “Quit keeping score altogether and surrender yourself with all your brokenness and flaws to God who sees neither the score nor the scorekeeper but only his child redeemed by Christ.” That is Good News to sing about.
“The great task of religion is to keep us fully awake, alert, and conscious,” says Rohr. This is not a threat but the gift of holiness and the sacredness of life. “When we are present (awake), we will know the Presence,” writes Rohr. When we are awake, when we experience Christ consciousness, we will know that we are loved, forgiven, and redeemed. We will know the everlasting gift of Christmas. “Christ is always coming; God is always present.”
This Advent season, may we sing the songs of Christmas with great joy and may we be aware of God’s Grace moving through us and the world in this moment. Amen.
Blessings and peace,