20th Day of Advent: Pasted-on Smiles and Half-Hearted Merry Christmases – A Reflection on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The LORD your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
I will remove from you
all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
which is a burden and reproach for you.
At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,”
says the LORD.
— Zephaniah 3:14-20

For some, Christmas is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The time spent with family and friends singing carols, giving gifts, baking cookies, trimming trees, and celebrating the birth of a tiny baby thousands of years ago. For others the pressure of the season, the expectation of joy is a burden too heavy to bear. Too heavy to muster up that illusion of happiness. For some, the year prior had produced too much brokenness, so feigning happiness during Christmas becomes an exercise of pasted-on smiles and half-hearted Merry Christmases.

Wednesday saw a report of a suicide/homicide in New Jersey, where a mother set her home on fire and closed herself and her three year old son in her bedroom while the house burned around them. There are stories like this all around the country.

Something in people snaps during this season and the pressure to be happy and filled with Christmas cheer becomes too much. And unfortunately we are too busy or too intimated to help these people who are hurting and to walk beside them when they need us most.

I’ve been thinking about this woman today. What was going on in her life where she thought suicide was her only way out? Did she lose her job and feel hopeless in our down-turned economy? Had her husband left her or passed away months earlier? Had she been battling depression for years and this year was the last straw? I have no idea. But for many, the Christmas season is not a time of joy, and we often do not know how to sit with others in the midst of their struggles. This is especially true when we may be caught up in the joy of the season.

However, as Christians, we have good news to share. Perhaps more now than ever, people need to hear this good news that God has come among us to bring about restoration to the world. To bring us love, hope, peace, and joy. The world is a dark and broken place, but God dwells with us in the midst of a broken and hurting world. And as Christ’s followers we should be this same presence to others.

There are people all around us who are hurting. They have pasted-on smiles and are half-heartedly wishing us a Merry Christmas. Will we look beyond the veneer of holiday cheer? Will we be bold and patient enough to sit with others in the midst of dark times? Will we be there to guide them to the true advent light–Jesus, the light of the world. Will we show them that there is a Comforter and Restorer who walks with them, who is offering them joy this Christmas?

A reflection by Angie Rines.

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Angie is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Angie tweets from @AngelaRines and blogs at http://angierines.wordpress.com

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19th Day of Advent: Advent and the Holocaust – Reflections on Luke 3

Female prisoners at forced labor digging trenches at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. This photograph is from the SS-Propaganda-Album des Frauen-KZ-Ravensbrueck 1940-1941. USHMM (18344), courtesy of Lydia Chagoll.

Advent and the Holocaust don’t normally get put together. However, I figured writing on the eve of the winter solstice (aka the longest night) and the Mayan apocalypse (aka the end of the world), Holocaust imagery might just be appropriate.

Advent and the Holocaust overlap more that you first might think. The story of Jews waiting, longing, hoping, traveling, being housed in deplorable conditions. Will a savior come? It doesn’t seem so as Herod and Hitler massacre innocent children. Murder. Hopelessness. Hate. Fear. A far cry from the peace, hope, love, and joy candles we light on our advent wreath in worship.

Every generation thinks they have it worse than the one before, but the unrest the Christ was born into was a world headed for a spiritual cliff just as much, if not more, than our world today. Those in power are neglecting and causing harm, and so John the Baptist holds a press conference to tell it like it is:

John said to the crowds… …bear fruits worthy of repentance… …Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation… …John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.  – Luke 3

When we read this text, and think about the massacre last week or the one long ago in Germany, it seems as though John got it all wrong. He said the bad fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire, not innocent children. Where in the hell is God in all of this? Why is evil still winning?

The following prayer was found at Ravensbruck death camp where 92,000 women and children died.  It was scrawled on a piece of paper near a dead girl. (It is also the text used in a single by Jennifer Knapp for the Martyr Project.)

Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will also those of ill will.  But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.

Just like Advent again, in the midst of all these questions and feelings of abandonment by God, a child shall lead us. This child’s prayer are Word made flesh:

In our suffering, remember all of your children, even those who turn on the gas chamber or trigger a semi automatic rifle. May the fruits we have borne in this suffering—may they be their forgiveness.

Sounds a lot like something Jesus would say. Fruit borne in suffering for the forgiveness of sins. Wine poured out for the forgiveness of all. The Christ becoming flesh in the words of that little Jewish girl.

Where the hell is God in all this evil? God is right there in the thick of hell; love conquering death. John tells us, God’s answer to unimaginable evil is Immanuel—God with us. God’s plan is incarnation—taking on flesh and suffering. And fiery furnaces, intended as evil, are transformed into baptism by fire—God claiming all as God’s children and calling us to bear fruit… that is how the evil in this world is destroyed.

A reflection by Andy Oliver.

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Andy is the Communicatons and Technology Coordinator serving Reconciling Ministries Network. Andy tweets at @HeyAndyOliver and blogs at http://about.me/andyoliver