I’ve been struck this year with the questions that pop up in the Advent season. I started thinking about this a couple Sundays ago when we read about John the Baptist in prison. He was no shrinking violet, never afraid to speak truth to power (which is what got him tossed in prison in the first place), never afraid to offend his listeners, addressing his congregation as a brood of vipers. Generally not recommended for preachers.
But earlier in Advent, we met him in a prison cell, maybe having second doubts about the choices he had made. I imagine him asking: Was this the cruise ship I signed up for? Was my call a wrong number? He sends messengers to Jesus (not sure how they did that in first century prisons) with this Advent question: Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or should we look for somebody else? (See Matthew 11 for a better telling of this story.)
Later this week, smack dab in the midst of wrapping Christmas presents and decking the halls with yuletide merriment, we observe the feast of St. Thomas, of doubting fame. He questioned whether Jesus was really raised from the dead. Maybe like John, he wondered as follower of Jesus if he had misplaced his hopes. (See John 20 for a better telling of this story.)
Maybe Thomas should be patron saint of Episcopalians, a denomination graced with a knack for savoring questions. If it’s true what Frederick Buechner says, that doubt is the ants in the pants of faith, Episcopalians should have very lively faith.
As we move to the observance of Christmas, questions persist. Mary responds to the angel’s announcement that she’s going to have a baby: “How can this be?” Refugee parents ask: “Is there any room in the inn?” Magi from the east ask: “Where is the child whose star we have observed?” And some time in the next couple days, we may well all sing: “What child is this?”
So I’m wondering on this Monday morning in this last week of Advent about the questions you bring to Christmas. Maybe like John the Baptist, the limits, even confinements of your life make you wonder if there’s hope to be had, a way out, a way forward. Maybe like Thomas you’ve been disappointed in faith, in the church, in people you trusted, making you wonder whether you can give your heart again. Maybe like Mary, you get a glimpse of the outrageous miracle that is Christmas and wonder: “Really? How can this be?”
In the mystery of our biblical tradition, these kinds of questions are welcomed, sometimes downright celebrated. (It would have been so easy to leave them out of the Bible.) It should be said that the questions are not meant as destination, but as catalysts moving us forward toward answers. And those answers do not come in argument. They do not come in theology or philosophy or recitation of creed. They do not come with some quick fix. The answer comes in the form of a person, a helpless, homeless infant actually, whose biblical nickname is Immanuel, which really means God with us.
So celebrate this week, family and fun and food and music and gifts, all of which orbit around that manger to which we bring ourselves, carrying all of our questions and placing them right there next to the gold, frankincense and myrrh.
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