Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia
Welcome this second Sunday of Advent. How are you doing? Isn’t it funny how that phrase takes on a different meaning this time of year? We keep hearing that it is the “most wonderful time of year”—and so, regardless of how we feel, there is so much stress both to live up to and “enjoy” all the holiday cheer and to hold on to the sanctity of the season all at the same time. Trying to balance all this is difficult to do and, so, we often end up feeling guilty for not being in the holiday spirit or we end up so busy with all our holiday preparations that we are too tired to really enjoy the holiday let alone reflect on the miraculous birth of the Christ child.
That is the thing about Advent. Like life, it isn’t as clear cut as we might wish. Advent is not Lent. Like Lent, Advent is a season of repentance in the real sense of that word—recognizing and owning what is occupying our hearts and minds and keeping us from receiving God’s love and consciously making a decision to amend and re-center our lives. But in Advent, Holy Week does not lie in front of us. In Advent we are repenting AND preparing ourselves for the birth of God’s own son into our own world. So, Advent is not either/or – it is, like life, both/and. It lives in the daily interplay of loss and joy. It is about repentance as preparation for something wonderful and new.
Last week our Gospel lesson was taken from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible in more vernacular English. We have returned to the NRSV translation of the Bible this week to hear the prophet’s voicing crying out in the wilderness in language we are more used to hearing in Church and we might also say sounds more dignified and “spiritual” to our ears. But, while Peterson’s vernacular translation is already sounding a bit dated, it still serves an important purpose – which is to get us to hear the gospel again with new ears. So, while we may say the Message doesn’t sound as pretty, that it is a bit clunky at times, it does help us to hear what God is saying in a new way: as if we were hearing about something contemporary – as if we were hearing this Good News on the bus or on the radio. So, there is one part of today’s gospel that I would like to read from Peterson’s Message – and that is the final section that talks about our work as Advent people. “Prepare God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight! every ditch will be filled in, every bump smoothed out, the detours straightened out, all the ruts paved over. Everyone will be there to see the parade of God’s salvation.” Contrasting this with what we have in our bulletin, this doesn’t sound so elegant right? We could be talking about our aging infrastructure, the terrible state of our interstate system, the roads of Seattle or New York. And how does that fit in with our aesthetics? And the final bit – “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” versus “Everyone will be there to see the parade of God’s salvation” Well, now we’re talking about a parade? Really?
But for the record. I just want to say I love a parade. And I love Advent because it is about real life in all its paradoxes. The fact, for example, that I love both art and culture and touristy kitsch all at the same time. Last week I just returned home from vacation where we travelled to Baltimore and New York to spend time with family and friends. And, while we enjoyed both a lovely traditional Thanksgiving meal with my best friend Vivian and her family and a meal by a celebrated chef at Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art –-our meal was prefaced with a visit to the John Water’s exhibit in the Museum and finished with a visit to the brand new mural of Divine in one of Baltimore’s historic neighborhoods. And while we enjoyed a second Thanksgiving dinner in New York with Jeremy’s son and our friends, I also dragged said friends, as I used to every year, to see the Christmas windows and decorations and to Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular. Because as tacky and plotless as the Christmas Spectacular is – The Rockettes are still amazing and the beautiful creche with its live animals makes me cry every single year. But getting back to the parade, while I wasn’t in New York this year for the parade, I do love a parade. I loved the ones in my hometown with its tractors, floats, local school marching bands and I love the Thanksgiving parade in NYC too. Friends if you are ever in NYC it is a thing to do – because at that parade you see the families and the people of New York. You will huddle together thankful for the bodies in the crowd that help stave off the cold – and you will feel the goodness and the promise of the season in the multitudes swirling around you—in the volunteer “balloon handlers” who make sure the balloons are safely maneuvered through the streets, and in the marching bands who have come from all across the country. And while we might be tempted to dismiss this event snarkily – friends, God is in that parade. God is with God’s people in that parade.
I have been thinking about the parade a little more than usual, because I had a number of friends who, while watching the parade on TV, noted that coverage this year did not show the marching bands or focus on the balloon handlers and the folks who were an actual part of the parade, but rather on celebrities who, in theory, were there as commentators on the parade but seemed instead to eclipse it. As my friend and former parishioner Annmarie wrote, “I feel like I am watching a talk show…where are the bands?” I can imagine hearing her say it in her distinctive NYC accent.
But that is the thing with Advent life, isn’t it? It is so easy to let the elegant glitter or tacky tinsel distract us from what is actually going on. And it can be so difficult to look for the glory of God’s salvation in the midst of all God’s humanity – in the midst of life with its endings and its beginnings. With its grief and joy all jumbled together—but that is the promise of this season of Advent – out of the darkness of these winter days, out of the darkness of this human world we are promised great light. And we are meant to see the glory of God’s salvation—God’s parade, if you will, in the midst of our life. AND this will not just occur in a swanky spa with quasi-meditation music or around the perfectly decorated Christmas tree. This is taking place in the midst of our real life. That is the promise that we are preparing for.. for which we are expectantly waiting ….this life of ours has been and will be entered into by God’s own son. The Emmanuel. The God is with us.
On November 30, a composition of the foxtrot “The Most Beautiful Time of Life” was performed for the first time since 1943. Most of us have probably never heard of this song and that is because it was just a popular tune of the day. Not Mozart. Not Bach. Just a foxtrot probably performed at dances. But the performance of this work was the culmination of a lot of work done by a music theory professor at the University of Michigan, Professor Patricia Hall, who found this title, along with other popular songs, in a rather incongruous place—the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The composition was made by two prisoners in the Men’s orchestra and probably performed at the concentration camp’s garrison. What drew Professor Hall to the piece initially was the title—“The Most Beautiful Time of Life” which doesn’t really fit into our conceptions of concentration camps, right? She said, I just couldn’t imagine what a title like it [was] doing in a death camp.” She went on to note of her publication of this arrangement,” [it]relates us on a very emotional level to some of the things prisoners endured and how they were able to create beauty nonetheless.”
Just a few days later, I heard a story about the members of the Titanic ensembles who famously played music while the ship sank to soothe and calm their fellow passengers. One survivor said of the men who played until the end – their final song the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee,’ “Many brave things were done that night, but none was more brave than those done by men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea. The music they played served alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recalled on the scrolls of undying fame.” Providing beauty and comfort in chaos, these musicians deserve to be honored for their work but, the story goes on to say, that the father of John Hume, one of those musicians, received a bill from their booking agent asking him to pay for his dead son’s uniform. He did not.
Thinking about the gift of beauty that these musicians gave in the darkest of times, re-orientates me to the reality and possibility of God’s glorious parade promised to me this Advent. God is coming near. God is coming here. I do want to prepare for God’s arrival. I do want to make the road smooth and straight! I do want to do away with unnecessary detours, ruts, or bumps that may make God’s folks stumble. And I want to do that in anticipation of all of those who are coming, who will be here to see the parade of God’s salvation. While I may not know right now what that parade will look like – while I may not even be able to conceive of how to get to that parade right now, I can still go on playing my part. And my part matters. It makes a difference and it can bring comfort to God’s people in need.
My wonderful friend Alex and her husband Ari put us up in New York City. I had often dragged Alex out to do the Christmas windows and all sorts of other area holiday events in years past, but this was the first year she ever went to the Christmas Spectacular with me. Both actors, I think they were hoping for a more significant unifying “plot” to the show but they were terrific sports (although Ari did doze off a little in the heated room). Afterwards, we walked over to the still unlit tree at Rockefeller Center, and although they don’t usually go, they promised to go see it lit so we could see it too. Alex sent me a Marco Polo video from the tree and I felt like I was there with them. And it was beautiful. It is beautiful. Advent is this mixture of joyful expectation and the crowds and busyness and promise of a new phase of our existence—let us play our part – whatever that might be—balloon handlers, musicians, bankers, lawyers, uber-drivers, conductors. Our part matters. Advent asks us to be the light and to rejoice that God is coming nearer. Regardless of where we are in this most wonderful time of life, let us do our part to keep our light on, to refuse to rain on the proverbial parade and to truly make this the most wonderful time of the year.