Pr. Eric Swensson

December 12, 2013


photo of Pr. EricI posted a picture of one of family’s holiday decorations on Facebook yesterday and wrote a few lines about our tradition. It is an Advent Star, it comes from Sweden, and it is much more than a decoration. If we take but a moment to think about things like holidays and traditions, we know immediately each particular thing is much more than it looks like. A particular thing like an Advent Star is I suppose we can call it the micro. The macro would be what? The observance of the season: Advent. But Advent is about more than a season. From where I sit, I see the season of Advent is itself in trouble. Let’s take a few minutes to think about Advent and Christmas and what these holidays mean.

First my micro, my Advent Star. I hung it again last night. If you do not know about these particular advent decorations, pine wood is lathed very thin and a light bulb hangs between the two pieces. Each piece has hearts and stars cut out for the light to pour through. We put it up a week or so before we do Christmas decorations. We were given this particular one for Christmas around 1999 by Bob and Norma Canfield. Bob was the music director for my congregation for years and years and he was simply a treasure. His wife Norma was a character. They are both passed and are very much missed.

This star has a lot of meaning. Like all of life itself, it is made of past memories bittersweet and thoughts of the future both hopeful and cautionary. It reminds me of Bob and Norma and of that congregation, and that brings up so many memories I can’t begin to tell you but I don’t have to, you have them yourself of your own congregations you have belonged to and ministered in. So this star has a past so to speak. When I see it makes me think of certain things. It directs my thoughts toward my own family and our rituals. It makes me think about Christmas observances in the house we live in, and so it makes me think about being together with my wife and son and some of the close friends we have over. It makes me think about the family I grew up in, the town my father was born in and retired to, his congregation and the other one in that small town we sometimes went to. But there is more.photo of Advent Star

See; come to think of it, I made this into the Advent Star. It is probably a Christmas Star. How is that? Well, I think we Christians really need to be countercultural. I think we need to reject what materialism has made of Christmas, and like everything, it is important what we say but much more so what we do. This war on Christmas thing… it is real, but complaining about with like-minded people doesn’t do much good and can do great harm. It is another reason to become bitter. And the bitter, once it has taken root, is so very, very hard to root out.

I think we are in trouble. Many local congregations, if you go to their website, if you get their newsletters, if you visit their campus, what are they celebrating? Christmas. The First Sunday in Advent, December 1, 2013 was de facto first Sunday in Christmas. And this was not the first year. What are the worship committees, church boards and pastors thinking? Are we afraid we are going to get left behind?

I don’t see much good to be done complaining about it. But I can have direct influence on my family and we have an Advent Star. This decoration, which we hang in the front window and not only does my family see it all the evening hours during family time, but the people passing our house do as well. It is the Advent Star because it goes up the first day of Advent and nothing else does except for grandfather’s advent candle stand, but no one sees that except people who come into our dining room and we hardly even notice it ourselves.

Holidays are rituals that are made of rituals, a macro that is made of up of many micros, I suppose. Holidays have a purpose and they actually have a great purpose, far beyond a day off work or a business making money. Holidays point us to the Holy One. We need the Holy One. You see, it is not a good thing to have God in our life--we do not have real life without God. It is not a good thing to know God. We need God like we need air, water, food, shelter and clothing. God should be our first thought on waking or close to it. Thanking God for waking up is not a quaint thing but a proper way to begin our daily reorientation. Making the sign of the cross, whatever you do, it points us to reality, the ever-so-much-better reality that a God-directed life is than all the other lives you could live.

If you think about your life right now, I am sure you have many joys and concerns, and if you think of your needs, what is your greatest need? I thought about this yesterday and this morning and my greatest need is quite mundane. I want to not only be a better husband and father and a good provider and work well with others, I want to do it without finding fault with these people I love and admire. I don’t think it is just me. Getting along well with everyone is not easy. And so everything, family and work and the things we do nearly every day become a soul-crushing routine. And I have lived long enough and seen enough to know that this is what is important: our real lives are made up of daily reality and not the passing fancies, entertainments, travel, hobbies, intellectual pursuits, even religion and spiritual life, if they are not connected directly to actual life and our relationships with the people God has put in our lives, forget it. And when the latter turns into a wilderness, a dessert, and it does, this is why people get divorced, quit their jobs, fall into violence, it is all because people are not understanding what life is about. Life is not about getting our way, having our fantasies fulfilled, it is not about popularity or wealth or any of these things and if you think about it, did not our Savior warn us about all of these things that people today seem to think is a God-given right?

Read Isaiah 35 for yourself. Think about it. What is it about? I read it with my wife and son and was asked, ‘What is this about, heaven?”. No, it is about life in Christ. It is about the Holy Spirit. Only in Jesus is new life found. Only Jesus made the blind to see and the deaf to hear. And if you look in John 7:37-39 you will see that Jesus told us that out of the believer’s heart will flow streams of this living water. This is the Streams in the Desert that Isaiah talks about. Only this Trinitarian life can be called a Highway of Holiness. This is a communal life, and an alternative community and Christians need to get real about sharing the message and living it. When we do not watch it we become the consumers and the purveyors of utterly false religiosity.

If any of this makes sense get together and talk with the people God has planted you with and tell them you love them and what God has done and is doing in your life and how you want to do better and be better but because you remain a sinner it is not easy, but praise God that all things are possible, including a return to Advent. Amen.