December 12, 2019
In this year’s advent, the season in which we remember, welcome, and hope for Jesus’ arrival, I’ve been thinking about what we are hoping for and how to make room for it.
Depending on the tradition through which you learned of Jesus, you may have heard that Jesus is our great Liberator or our great Forgiver. Jesus the Liberator stands in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and with all people as they grieve and suffer and die. Jesus the Liberator delivers us from the harm done to us and gives us courage to seek justice and mercy in our world. Jesus the Forgiver is the revelation of the perfected and whole human that none of us are today and welcomes us as we are into transformative relationship with God. Jesus the Forgiver extends compassion, mercy, and welcome to us in our folly, freeing us from guilt and shame, and enabling us to live with new peace and purpose.
It’s become obvious to me over the years that both of these promises are part of the same story. Jesus’ story is reconciliation and liberation. And in the weeks before Christmas, we’d do well to lament our lives’ pain and injustices and to confess our sins and turn away from the things that choke out joy and life in us.
Think of the life and teaching of Malcolm X. We decided to introduce our children to Spike Lee’s great 1992 film, and since it’s so long, it’s become an Advent project in our home. As a young adult, Malcolm’s had by his own admission become a mess. He was an addict, a thief, and a philanderer. When he found Islam, he sought mercy and redirected his life, with the help of God and friends. And yet as my kids watch the film, that was not at all their main impression of Malcolm’s childhood and youth. They see how Malcolm’s family was terrorized by White Christian racists, how his father was killed, he and his siblings removed from the custody of their mother, diminished and abused in foster care, and left parentless to fend for himself in a country which stood against his very existence, let alone his rights. My children watch his story and they rightfully assess that the story of Malcom X’s youth is of what a raw deal our country gave him, how he was in need of justice and liberation.
Likely none of us will impact history as Malcolm X. Perhaps none of us faces such staggering oppression and injustice in our lives as he did either; I don’t know. But follow this need for healing and justice, for forgiveness and liberation, for freedom within and freedom without into our lives and times.
Bruce Rogers-Vaughn is a psychologist who teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and he has a book out called Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age. His analysis, born out of cultural critique and thousands of hours of patient care, is that our current form of capitalism is eating away at social, interpersonal, and psychological health.
On a recent podcast, I heard him say, “We call (our society) meritocracy… and the merits are … ambitiousness, enthusiasm, drive, talent, and intelligence.” And if you’re not deemed to have these talents, “too bad for you.” Inequality is also a “central feature of late capitalism, or neoliberalism.” “Three men hold as much wealth as the bottom fifty percent of the population of the United States. So here’s what happens…. We emphasize the responsibility of individuals to manage themselves, including their feelings, and then we deprive them of the resources to do it. I would call that demonic.” Demonic has long been a religious word to refer to the destructive spiritual power of accusation.
If you’ve stuck with me for all this theology and cultural analysis, you may be wondering what this has to do with Christmas, and with waiting for and making room for Jesus.
Here it is: We all need greater health and freedom. Likely your life has degrees of compulsion and stress and strain you wish weren’t there. You likely also have less gratitude, joy, wonder, and connection than you wish you had. You are not alone. In fact, all of us are being robbed of those things. And in varying degrees, our violent, disordered world or our own jacked-up lives and mentalities are doing the robbing.
Jesus is interested in your freedom. A quick google search of the New Testament for the word “freedom” will show you how important this is to the good news of Jesus. Jesus also, I believe, wants to visit you, as Liberator and as Forgiver, in this Christmas season, to stir joy, wonder, gratitude, and connection in your life again.
So make room.
When Mother Mary heard that Jesus was coming, she told God she saw the evil, unjust systems of our age and called out confidently for a change. Join Mary and lament the ways that your circumstances or our world at large are crushing you. Ask Jesus to sit with you in your frustration, and to visit you and all of us with hope and power.
And when Papa Joseph dreamed of Jesus, he heard that Jesus would save us from our sins and be Immanuel, God with us all. So join Joseph in turning away from your most life-draining habits and welcoming Jesus’ forgiveness, redirection, and the experience of God with us that he brings.
Let Jesus know how it is you need to see God again this Christmastime, how it is you long for freedom, and keep your eyes out to see if God won’t come to you again.