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Why Advent is the hardest of times for faithful Christians

To put on the joy of the Christmas season, first there are things we have to take off, says Catherine A. Caimano in a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent.

November 23, 2010

Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44 

Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was delivered on Dec. 2, 2007, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kan.

“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12).

When the night starts coming early, and the wind starts blowing cold, there are lots of things we start to put on: wool socks and long johns, hats and gloves, fleecy blankets and heavy sweaters. We put on the heat and put another log on the fire and put some extra lights on outside -- because they look lovely, but also because they seem to hold the night back just a bit. With the holidays upon us, a lot of us put on a few pounds, and some of us put more debt than we should on our credit cards. We put on our fancy clothes to go to parties, and put our best dishes on for our guests.

But as Paul points out in Romans, and Jesus warns in the Gospel, all the things we put on this time of year can make it hard to clothe ourselves with Christ.

And these two readings, the first warning us of the dangers of drunkenness and debauchery, the other reminding us that we never know when the end is near, seem to be a bit of a bummer as we start seriously gearing up for holiday festivities.

We want to put on the mantle of joy in this season, not the sackcloth and ashes of the penitent. We want no guilt with the glitter of windows and wrappings, trimmings and trees.

And this is surely why Advent is the hardest of times for faithful Christians, as we are exhorted to hold off on the celebrating for four more weeks, to embrace the darkness and the silence and the cold before we can put on the carols and presents and golden glow of the one Christian holiday that is most firmly embraced by all of the world.

Why should we put on the color of solemnity just as everyone else is putting on the most festive dress of the year?

In our Gospel story, despite its ominous overtones, the theme of what Jesus is saying is to be prepared. To know that our lives as Christians are not just measured by our attendance at church, or our assent to certain beliefs, but also by how we live our ordinary lives -- eating and drinking, working and living together.

Our faith is about how Jesus Christ, born into this world as a small spot of light in the darkness, helps us to believe, and to live like we believe, that love and forgiveness and redemption and hope have a part in every choice that we make, in every regular day on our calendar.

And this sense of preparation, of not knowing when it is that we will most need to be ready, is not meant to scare us; it is meant to remind us that the kingdom of heaven is everywhere, even when we least expect it. And we need this reminder, because we all know that our regular life, despite our beliefs, often feels like it forces us to put on all kinds of other things: deadlines and debts and distractions and all sorts of dire circumstances that can lead us to live like the darkness is catching up to us.

And to just hang some lights on all the ways the pressures and pains are getting to us is no way to prepare to put on the kind of party that is a truly joyful, truly meaningful celebration of the light of Christ in our lives.

And so, as Paul reminds us, as Jesus reminds us, first we have to get ready. The armor of light is apparently a suit that fits us very closely, so our first order of business is to cast away “the works of darkness.” In other words, to put on the joy of this season, first there are things we have to take off. And this is what the season of Advent is for.

We have to take off the fears and the pains that weigh us down, that we carry around like heavy wool coats, that we try to wrap up in festive themes for the occasion; but really, sometimes we need a moment of silence, a place of cool quiet, to unburden our hearts and our souls of what is troubling us.

And we have to take off our feelings of isolation, whether from habit or self-protection. Even while we are enjoying the comforts of this time of year, this is the time to take off the blinders that keep us from realizing that every day there are those who have nothing to put on for the holidays: no parties, no warm clothes, no reason for joy.

And it would be good if, with this, we could also take off our guilt, because this eye-opening experience is not about being ashamed of our abundance; it is about being called into sharing all that we have been blessed with. It is about taking off the burden of too much and letting it become the source of plenty for others.

And each of us, I think, probably has our own individual list of addictions and illusions that we could afford to take off while we’re at it: the pressure to be perfect, especially this time of year, the striving to be what we are not, the dingy collection of grudges that’s stuck in our corners. If we really want to shine, it’s time for these to go.

Advent preparation, then, although it is a solemn time, is really about going right through the darkness, rather than trying to circumvent it altogether. In order to cast it away, we need to get a really good grip on it; we need to strip off what would normally hide it, as counterproductive as this seems.

Because the true light, the true joy that we are getting ready for, is not something that we create or that we find; it is what comes to us when we are ready and waiting for it. To put on the armor of light is to rejoice that we have marched right into this darkness and found that we are not alone. We will not be left in our suffering; we will be met with hope and peace and love in the moments that we dare to take off the kinds of armor that the rest of the world seems to demand that we wear -- cynicism and defensiveness and isolation and fear.

The moment that we bare our true hearts and true souls is the moment that we find we are suddenly clothed with the kind of joy that all the other sparkle of this season can’t even begin to imitate. That’s when we put on the party that is Christmas -- not before our time to truly prepare.

So for these four weeks, we put on the light, one small candle at a time. We remind ourselves to take off those things that we do not need and wrap ourselves in the warmth of what is coming -- the light of the world, slowly, appearing when we most need it.

Put on the blanket of truth. Put on the mantle of hope. Put on the armor of light.