Advent and Christmas are both about joy. But they show us different sides of that emotion.
At Christmas, we mark the birth of a child who is also a saviour; we celebrate the return of light after the winter solstice; and we gather with family and friends to enjoy meals and gifts. This is the joy of Christmas.
In contrast, Advent Joy can be felt even when the hours of daylight continue to shrink, even when we have no family gatherings to attend, and even when parties and gifts are the last things on our minds.
Christmas joy is about getting what we want, I believe. Advent joy is about getting what we need.
In his story “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens shows us both types. In particular, I am thinking of the Christmas morning scene from the 1951 movie version.
In it, the lead character, Ebeneezer Scrooge, is thrilled to be alive after spending the night with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Because of what they have shown him, Scrooge has gained painful insight into his life.
When his housekeeper arrives, Scrooge tells her that he doesn’t know how long he has been with the spirits. “In fact,” he continues, “I don’t know anything . . . I never did know anything. But now I know that I don’t know.” Then he claps his hands together, slaps his thighs and prances about the room as he sings, “I don’t know anything. But now I know that I don’t know. I don’t know anything, all on a Christmas morning” . . . at which point his housekeeper runs out of the room screaming!
This is one of my all-time favourite movie scenes. Waking up to the fact that he knows nothing is painful for Scrooge. But from this place of not-knowing, he experiences deep joy and changes his life completely.
Ignorance and powerlessness are not always seen as markers of healing and joy. But in Scrooge’s repentance and conversion, I see echoes of the life of Jesus.
At his birth, Jesus is full of promise. But as with all newborns, he is also powerless. And at the end of his life, Jesus dies in humiliation on a cross. Like Scrooge’s dark night of the soul, the cross carries the promise of new life. And as with Scrooge, this new life comes at the cost of pain. This is true, I believe, for all who respond to Jesus’ call to take up our own cross.
It might seem odd for a minister to uphold ignorance as a virtue since we try to learn a lot in church. We study the Bible, current events, and the big questions of ethics, justice, and theology.
But no matter how much we learn, it will never be more than a tiny sliver of all that there is to know. Nor will it ever help us get beyond our need to trust our bodies, our fellow human beings, and the world. It will never free us from the need to place our faithful trust in God.
Before his painful Christmas night with the spirits, Scrooge thought that he had life figured out. He had learned to harden his heart after the untimely deaths of his mother and sister and against his inability to find love. He had become successful in business; and he assumed that others could achieve similar worldly success through hard work and ruthlessness.
Scrooge worshiped self-reliance, money, and lack of empathy. This was what he knew, and it seemed sufficient to him.
But the beginning of wisdom is awareness of our utter dependence on each other. From a position of ignorance and powerlessness, we are freed to accept our mortal reality and the difficulties of the family, community and world in which we live. With the grace of humility we are free to give and receive love without limit.
During the years when Scrooge had everything figured out, he was miserable. But when he realized that he knew nothing, he became a joyous and loving friend.
Scrooge’s Advent repentance finally came on Christmas morning. By accepting his ignorance and powerlessness, he was able to repent and turn towards love. His painful spiritual journey opened him up to the soulful joys of Christmas – the joys of friends, family, and generosity.
Like Jesus, all of us come into the world without power and knowledge and we leave the world the same way. Since we will never figure it all out and since we are headed to our own cross, we can, with grace, leave behind addictions and preoccupations. We are freed to live fearlessly into our sacred values.
In the face of his mortality and the tough realities of a messed-up world, Scrooge learns that none of his preoccupations matter. He gives up old certainties. He admits his dependence on others. He relaxes into a painful awareness that he had wasted much of his life. He also relaxes into a joyous awareness that in his powerlessness he is saved.
The church represents the paradox of powerlessness leading to joy in Jesus. He is a humble baby born into poverty at Christmas who grows up to become the Christ who is crucified during Holy Week. Jesus graciously calls us to walk with him on this path. With hope and joy, we travel on it with other ignorant fools like Scrooge. On this path, God’s Grace reveals that all our worries are of no importance. And what could be more joyful than this revelation?
When we admit that we are powerless, we don’t have to worry about family, which allows us to be the best parents or children we could ever be. We don’t have to worry about wealth or power, which allow us to be better citizens. And we don’t have to worry about preserving our small lives, which allows us to be raised into new life in Christ — the best and brightest joy imaginable.
St. Paul said that all he knew was Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). He also wrote that while this seems like “foolishness to those who are perishing, to those who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18) God’s strength lies in weakness, and our healing is revealed by a Saviour who dies on a cross.
On a dark Christmas Night, Ebeneezer Scrooge learned the painful truth that his life had been wasted on idols and bitterness. Because he accepted the spirits’ help to acknowledge this painful truth, he was raised to a new life on Christmas morning in full awareness of his ignorance and foolishness.
Advent joy is about the acceptance of reality while Christmas is about everyday pleasures and comfort. Advent is a spiritual journey while Christmas is a soulful celebration. Both are important, and with grace, they support each other.
This Advent, I pray that we will accept our reality in all of its pain and pleasure and so become holy fools like Scrooge — people who are awake to each blessed moment. Not only does such an awakening help us participate in the soulful pleasures of Christmas. It allows us to know the never-ending joy of new life in Christ.
And so this Advent we say again . . . Come, Lord Jesus Come.