Splendor and Light

We put up our Christmas trees over the Thanksgiving holiday – two pre-lit trees, in three pieces each – and as Chris placed the last piece on the second tree and the lights came on, I felt a sigh of relief escape. There is little that tries my patience more than hunting for the loose plug or the burned out bulb as everyone else involved in tree decorating seemingly dissipates, retreating to watch a game or read a book or take a nap or whatever, while I solve the mystery of the tree that wouldn’t light, suddenly feeling a sense of kinship with Clark Griswold as he stands with his family in their pajamas in the front yard having strung 250 strands of 100 lights each, he holds the extension cord ready and announces, “I dedicate this house to the Griswold family Christmas! Drumroll please! (and they all oblige) Joy to the World!” and nothing. Not a single twinkle.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation begins with a family road trip to retrieve the perfect Christmas tree. Clark Griswold, husband and father, is full of hope “We’re kicking off our fun, old-fashioned family Christmas by heading out into the country in the old front-wheel drive sleigh to embrace the frosty majesty of the winter landscape and select that most important of Christmas symbols.” In his optimism, he has invited his parents AND her parents to come and stay with them to celebrate Christmas all together. His wife, Ellen, is more realistic, “I think you’re forgetting how difficult it’s going to be having everybody at the house at the same time.”

Her parents and his parents bicker even as they knock on the door. Cousin Eddie and family surprise them all when they arrive uninvited, planning to stay in their RV in the driveway for a month; and then Aunt Bethany and Uncle Lewis come bearing a gift that meows and another that is leaking a melting jello mold. But Clark Griswold remains hopeful; in the midst of grumbling and fussing, disappointments and eccentricities, Clark Griswold’s hope is like a rubber bouncy ball. It keeps on bouncing back.

And then, on Christmas Eve, the whole family gathers around the dining room table. Clark smiles and asks Aunt Bethany to say grace…and when she begins, “I pledge allegiance to the flag…,” you can see the hope drain from Clark’s face. It’s been too much; and it’s not over. The turkey has essentially been dehydrated. The visiting dog throws up under the table because he’s gotten into the trash in the kitchen. The visiting cat chews the lights on the tree and a fire results. Clark’s long-awaited and anticipated Christmas bonus arrives and is a subscription to a jelly of the month club. And then, a squirrel springs from the tree and runs around the living room. Clark finally reaches the point that he can’t see how things could get any worse.

That’s what life was like for the people who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy. The Babylonians have crushed them, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and driven them out of their country into exile. Their lives are like parched, dry desert. And the prophet says they will be glad.

Scholars divide Isaiah into First Isaiah, chapters 1-39, and Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55. First Isaiah was written during the exile, and Second Isaiah was written after the Israelites returned from exile. So, today’s passage seems out of place. Some scholars argue that this passage of hope in chapter 35 was originally part of Second Isaiah and mistakenly placed within the part of Isaiah written during exile.

How could the prophet speak so confidently of hope? How could Isaiah proclaim that the wilderness, even the desolate places of creation, will rejoice and blossom like the crocus, bursting into bloom? What would make the desert shout for joy? Rain.

In Israel, after the long, hot summer, one of the first plants to bloom is the Winter Crocus. When you see the crocus, a tiny sign, really, standing only 1-3 inches, with no stem, you know that the rains are coming.

Isaiah is saying, watch for the little signs, like crocuses sprouting up even before the rains come. And hope is restored. Weariness is replaced with vitality.
Like Clark Griswold’s family, the Israelites in exile must have questioned Isaiah’s optimism. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap like deer, the mute with shout for joy…all of the calamities that befall humankind will be revoked?

I was reading a post by Canadian Christian author Sarah Bessey this week. She asked, “…how could we possibly enter into Advent if we are paying attention to this world? How do we celebrate or “get cozy” or turn towards Christmas when our hearts are broken by Syria’s refugees, by Hong Kong’s protests, by Brexit, by the U.S.A. impeachment proceedings and detention camps, by broken treaties, by one another? When, in response to every crisis, our communities seem splintered and divided even in how to bind up each other’s wounds and careless words are flung like rocks at our own glass houses? When perhaps we are lonely or bored or tired or sick or broke or afraid? When we are grieving and sad?”

I think Clark Griswold has the answer as the family is bewildered by what they see in the night sky. “It’s the Christmas star,” he says, “And that’s all that matters tonight. Not bonuses or gifts or turkeys or trees.”

We celebrate Advent because it awakens us from our slumber and calls us to be attentive to our own preparation. Where have you lost hope? Debie Thomas’s son had a bicycle accident when he was 15. He is now 17 and for the last 2 years, he has suffered with debilitating headaches. He is able to sit up for 4-5 hours a day, faints and is nauseas frequently, so most of the time he spends in his bed in the dark. Debie says her hope just after the accident was for healing, her prayers were results oriented – let this treatment work, let this scan show improvement. Now, two years later, she says, “Everything I understand about hope has changed. Of course I still pray for my son’s headaches to go away. But the hope fueling the prayer is softer now, quieter. It’s an unclenched hope, one set free from expectation, clamoring, and frenzy. It’s a hope grounded in things not seen, in tiny seeds planted in dark soil; in small gestures of love, courage, friendship, and solidarity; in streams that flow in the desert; in the quiet resurrections that keep my son and our family going.”

The stories of Sarah at 90 expecting her first child, Hagar in the desert with Ishmael facing dehydration crying out to God, Hannah praying for a child, Mary pondering what this coming child means…all speak to her of hope in the midst of the dry and desolate land.

We celebrate Advent because we have fearful hearts and Isaiah tells us “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come.”

We celebrate Advent because when we are attentive, we see the crocus pushing up through the cracks in the dry and barren land.

We celebrate Advent because the night is nearly over; the day is almost here. Christ is coming. Thanks be to God. Amen.