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Some Assembly Required

In contrast to many of our neighbors, this time of year will often find our residence curiously devoid of the expected holiday glitter and garland. While some nearby homes feature Christmas light displays no doubt visible to astronauts bunking on the International Space Station, our lodging can remain dark and chaste enough to evoke images of post-war Berlin on the wrong side of the Brandenburg Gate. Frankly, I like it that way. It is not that we intend to be shy or joyless in our approach to the season. Instead, we leave you free tospeculate whether or not we have borrowed our notions of home decorating from that little-known school of design known as Amish Minimalism. So we smile and wave across to neighbors clambering atop their roof, breathlessly positioning their aluminum Santa in regal procession with his elves, sleigh, and eight smelly little deer.At some point late next summer, I am sure they will actually take down the whole festive display.

Now because we are journeying through Advent and not just the run-up to theDay-After-Christmas Sale over at the mall, perhaps I should be upbeat about the fact that almost everywhere you look our culture is busy falling over itself to remember the Story it finds so easy to ignore the rest of the year. To be fair, I will acknowledge this as good news, even if the chief purpose lying behind all of this commercialized remembering seems at times to be an attempt to squeeze just a few more dollars out of me. On balance, it has long been my sense that the world could certainly benefit from an outbreak of gratuitous love and kindness. And given that hypothesis, it has never been my choice to be one of those Bah Humbug preacher types who spend Advent resentfully grousing and kvetching over the generosity of our impulse to spend more than we really should at Christmas. From time to time it just seems right to express our heart toward those we love, so if it ever comes up for a vote, I will always be pulling for the party of Generous to wipe out Selfish by a landslide no matter what Donald Trump has to say on the matter. After all, by the grace of God, generosity turns out to be that most curious of self-replenishing and sustainable resources: The more you do it, the more you want to do it.

This being said, some of my hesitation regarding our tendency to get carried away with an annual Christmas dosage of irrational exuberance probably has to do with what I read in the Story itself. What troubles me are those nagging reminders that the Advent narratives are themselves full of all sorts of rough spots and sharp edges. Despite our insistence on romanticizing, not to mention sanitizing, that odd journey to an unexpected birth in Bethlehem, the Biblical text makes it pointedly obvious that what we are remembering is none other than the Advent of a Messiah whose arrival among us was quite literally, inconceivable. Little wonder then, why God’s angels always show up with the words Do Not Fear falling from whatever it is that angels have in the way of lips. Because the one thing Advent tells me is that when God sends us a Christmas gift, some assembly always seems to be required.

If we are to take our cues from that original Story, for example, then we will be starting with an unwed teenager who will one day hear that she is going to be a mother without the benefit of any guarantee that there will be a man to claim her child. Then we will have to add a working man who will not enjoy a good night of sleep once the rest of the village starts pointing at the belly of his betrothed while snickering behind his back. If you like, throw in some shepherds, a few minimum wage stand-ins fresh from the unemployment line. But don’t forget the old priest who recently lost his tongue, struck dumb as a stone at the one moment in his life when everybody wants to know what he has on his mind. And for heaven’s sake, you will need a few more angels to show up singing glory and starlight over the rather unpromising muck of another nondescript shift for a bunch of hardscrabble folks who are stuck working a dead-end job. Of course, quite often we miss all of this, knowing as we do how the Story turns out in the end. But perhaps this year we can remember not to forget how much faithful work is actually necessary for these people to turn all of their initial question marks into praise and exclamation points. None of it is easy. It is simply that all of it turns out to be blessed. And God, rather than the devil, has patiently been at work in all of these messy details.

Go ahead and string your lights. Deck your halls and trim your trees. In fact, don’t dim any part of your celebration. But for the love of God, do not forget that these others from the Story are like us too. For once you start reading the text carefully, you can’t really miss them. Why is that? All that I know to say is that Advent is for and about the people who will not give up looking to find God’s gifts among all of the strange pieces that at times seemingly come without warning or instructions.

Jeff Crosno