Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Irony of Advent

Last night in our reflection group, we pondered the words “good” and “faithful.” When viewed in the lexicon of religion, there doesn’t seem to be much difference. Does not a good spiritual practice entail being good? Does not faith deepen as one gets better?

The answer, I suppose, would surely be “yes,” if the practice of faith were entirely up to me. Consider the Biblical story of Jacob, upon which our group was asked to reflect last night. Jacob is more trickster than saint. He’s a twin. He and his brother are born fighting. Later, Jacob tricks his bro, first, of his birthright, second, of their father’s blessing, and then, fearing for his life, hits the road. He falls asleep under the stars and receives a vivid message from God in the form of a dream of heaven, a stairway with angels, a glimpse of the divine mind, calling him to higher consciousness. There is absolutely nothing about Jacob himself that would merit such an experience, except that he has such ample room for improvement, but there it is. Except that it does not particularly change him. He goes on to engage in a difficult, sometimes deceitful (on both sides) relationship with his father in law Laban, and ends up fleeing him as well, not only having cheated him of the better part of his herd, but also having stolen Laban’s household gods, the source of his security and blessing. At the Jabbock, at the boundary between present and future and soon to come face to face with his past, Jacob is given yet another dream and wrestles with God all night. He wakes up wounded, but he and his brother are reconciled. A Jungian would say of this story that after many struggles, the persona and the shadow are united at last, but a person of our faith would say also that God never stopped bugging him.

By my standards of morality, Jacob seems hardly “worthy” of such divine favor and persistence. The moment I say this, however, I remember the wildness of grace. Grace cares not at all whether one is worthy. Grace only cares that you notice when the wild wind is blowing. God clearly liked Jacob, and Jacob clearly noticed God. Jacob was part of a story that did not begin with him, nor would it end with him. Many a “good” person has retreated into a comfy and domesticated world of “goodness,” while more rough hewn folk venture out to the crossroads. There’s a kind of faith in venturing out, in seeking encounters with others rather than affirmations of ones own goodness. Tricksters hold few illusions of sanctity, but they do know a good trick when they see one. God has been known to turn a few. Tricksters thrive on change, and they’re not afraid of tacky when tacky is called for. Often, in this world it is, or Jesus would not have been born in a barn.

Advent, like Jacob’s world, like the stable, like the crossroad, is a boundary place. It certainly overturns my sense of my own goodness. I expected that somehow I could write daily Advent meditations while being chaplain to 348 excited children in December. The children won. They always do. So much for being good at the tidy sequence of theological reflection that paves the road to Bethlehem. I have learned this year that sometimes it is better just to keep the faith and show up at my corner.

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