Yesterday, the faculty and staff of The Seattle School gathered for our annual Christmas luncheon. Dr. Keith Anderson, President of The Seattle School, offered this Advent reflection, about the particularity of the birth of Christ and the scandalous challenge that it presents to all of us. May you find in his words a reminder of the beautiful, haunting, unexpected arrival we are celebrating this month.
Christmas this year has taken an unexpected turn. At the epicenter of it happens to be two coffee companies. I know them well. A few years ago, Wendy and I were given a tour of the CIA with a donor. Actually you basically get a tour of the hallway; down the hallway and behind locked doors are important things that happen; in the hallway you are pointed toward the important things behind high security doors. Come to think of it, that was the role the angels, actually a Greek word for messengers, played: pointing to where the important things were happening.
It requires a higher classification than a visitor’s badge to get behind the doors at the CIA. But, we did get to eat lunch in the CIA cafeteria where all the presidents have visited. And there it was: culture in contrast. On one side was a dark wood, green-countered, wood-chaired, subtly lit and classy looking coffee company from Seattle: Starbucks. On the exact opposite side was a diner-like space with bright lights, tile floors, diner-type stools, and a far better food selection: Dunkin’ Donuts from Canton, Massachusetts. That was a couple of years ago.
This year—a red cup with nothing about Christmas or a Dunkin’ Donuts styrofoam cup with large letters that declare Joy in red and green traditional colors? The controversy stirred by Starbucks has been intense, for some.
Thankfully, for me, those are not my only choices. Frankly, I don’t look to the American business culture for an epiphany or appearance of something revelatory. When that happens I am surprised. But the epiphany more likely comes when we gather as a worshipping community of expectation, wonder, waiting, faith, and yes, surprise.
It happens to me year after year. Even the coffee cup controversy can help us ask the deeper question: what’s going on? What’s behind this season of Advent? What does it matter, after all? It’s only about the birth of a child in a small Middle Eastern village, but that birth got people talking and wondering and Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts notwithstanding, it still does—with more vitriol and rejection of cultural views of Jesus, I suppose, but there is still a hint of scandal that keeps us talking. This birth has mythology around it and icons of sheep and shepherds, turbaned magi from even farther east, choirs of angels and bright night skies. And, who is the daddy of this child anyway?
Advent—the word is jarring in its etiology. Advent simply means the arrival or the coming of something or someone noteworthy. The Greek word came from another word, Parousia, which takes the minds of our MDiv students to another coming—a second coming, as it were. Another arrival. But here’s the tricky part: if Advent means someone is coming, someone to notice, someone to whom we need to pay attention, then Advent is a time for us to make up our minds all over again. It’s a season when we decide if we’ll join those who became convinced that God entered human history in that birth, that he arrived here—in history and geography.
I like the word particularity because it says you can’t just dismiss this child—born in time and place, a particular moment, a particular gender, a particular ethnicity, and particular location in a particular moment. Birth is particular—not generic. Ask any woman who has delivered a child or any parent or grandparent who has watched it happen. It’s not an idea that arrives—it is someone. And you have to decide if you’re going to get in on the celebration, and the noise, and the mess, and the life it will demand of you. Because Advent isn’t just a celebration of lights, candles, and the spirit of sentimentality.
Karl Barth had a way of speaking about this particularity. He called it a “summons to reverence and worship.” That’s another way to say there is work to be done on our part. It asks something of us and frankly, some days I wonder if the church does that anymore.
Eugene Peterson, one of my sources for good writing, notes that “Artists, poets, musicians, and architects are our primary witnesses because they haven’t argued the case, but our artists have painted Madonna’s, our poets have provided our imagination with rhythms and metaphors, our musicians have filled the air with carols and anthems that bring us to our knees in adoration, and our architects have designed and built chapels and cathedrals in which we can worship God.
Madeline L’Engle tells us why:
‘This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.’”
The birth of this boy-child named Jesus has never been an easy truth for people to swallow. The world is in a mess, poverty still grips millions, hunger still haunts our city streets, violence is everywhere present it seems, terror and fear hold us captive, darkness seems to cover the earth…still.
So why believe any of it is good news? I can’t answer that except say this: Isaiah declared it long before Handel put music to it. God said it long before the poets did. And we need to hear it too in this season of of Advent: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”
Kathleen Norris gives me my best one-line summary of Advent. She writes, ”Something or someone wants our attention.” So I say, we have a decision to make: not either the plain red cup or the colorful red and green cup of joy, but whether we will look into the face of the child to embrace or ignore what God has set before us…once again.