Dec. 3, 2023

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37


One of my favorite Christmas cards came in the mail about 10 years ago, and the image has stayed with me.  It had two pictures on it.  The second one was the happy family, all dressed up, posed and smiling in unison in front of the tree.  The first showed the family in the same room, except that it was far from clean and tidy.  The dad was holding the toddler in one arm, almost like a football, while trying to grab the dog.  The baby had spilled milk and cheerios on her face, her chair, her lap, and the floor.  The mom’s hair was going in all different directions and she looked a bit tired.

The two images together on the card made gave me a good laugh, but I think it stuck in my head because the sending of it struck me as refreshingly honest and even somehow bold or brave.

Have you heard of “toxic positivity?”  According to Medical News Today, “it’s the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic. Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.”[i]  You can tell me how big a problem you think it is next to the other ills of our society today.  It seemed to strike more of a cord for some than for others at my lectionary group.

For me, I think it’s most obvious on the pages of social media.  People tend to post highlights, which are natural things to share, but what “friends” end up seeing are only the positives, which makes you think all you can share are the positives, which makes you think that all you should have are positives, which makes you feel bad about having any negatives, which makes you think you should mask them or deny them, which ultimately makes you feel empty inside because deep down you know they are there and real, and it’s no longer safe to reveal your authentic self.  As more and more of us scroll away on our devices it makes me think that this may be a real issue for more and more of us.

I guess that’s why my friend’s card stuck me as such a bold move.  No apologies for having a messy life even when messiness is less and less acceptable.

All of this comes to mind today because of our scripture passages for this first Sunday in Advent.  Both have to do with absence and presence, with a sense of God’s coming and a sense that God is removed.  “Keep awake” says Jesus in Mark.  “Be ready for a glory you cannot fathom.”  And, Isaiah cries out for it.  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  “You’ve hid your face from us for too long.  We’ve transgressed.  Everything is a mess.  We need you to come!”

It’s the opposite of toxic positivity; it’s lament and it’s often a neglected aspect of our faith.  Maybe we feel like we’re not supposed to complain, but lament really isn’t complaint.  Neither is it so much a criticism of God as it is a longing for God and the honest expression of our human need, and the expectant hope that in the transcendent mystery of God’s wisdom God alone can meet that need.  In an insightful little commentary on lament professor NT Wright says, “It is no part of Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why.  In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain – and to lament instead.  As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.”[ii]

I think that’s the case because lament brings us into our own authenticity; it throws all of our “shoulds” out the window and lays us bare before God, which is the place of God’s handiwork because God meets us where we are and not where we think we should be.  In this year’s Advent 1 call to “wakefulness” it seems to me that we’re reminded to prepare for God’s coming by facing and embracing our need and our longing.  To lament is, in a way, to wake up.

Last year at about this time Audrey Tiesler and I experienced what continues to emerge for me as meaningful expression of this reality.  We helped to lead a Blue Christmas service at a senior living community in Shelton called Crosby Commons.  Forgive me if you’ve heard this before, but again it seems so appropriate to share as we think about lament.

Blue Christmas is a service held around the December holiday time in acknowledgement that it can be a tough season for people.  As much of the world celebrates, there are many of who feel a heightened reminder of their losses, of those with whom they no longer celebrate.  So, Blue Christmas gives people a chance to lament together and to be present to one another in their grief.

After the scripture readings and the sermon we left space in the service for the 15 or so residents to share if they felt so moved.  Everyone had the opportunity to give voice to the loss they were grieving and to switch on a little votive candle as a symbol of their prayer.  My plan was that we would all listen silently and reverently as griefs were voiced and then we would have a prayer that offered them to God.  One of the residents, however, had different plans, and though I wasn’t quite sure what to think at first, I’m glad she did.  After each person shared, this woman took it upon herself to offer a response.

One man said how only a few years ago his daughter had died.  It left him with a hole that would not heal.  The woman replied, “I am so sorry for your loss.  I can’t imagine what it must feel like to you, but I know that you shouldn’t have to suffer that loss alone.  [She called him by name and said,] I will be with you if you want, and you can share your sadness with me.”

Someone else said that their best friend had recently died; they used to talk on the phone every day.  Her family was all gone and now she had no one.  The woman spoke up again, “I don’t know you and I don’t think we’ve ever met, but I would like to get to know you.  I can’t replace your friend, but I would like to be friends with you.”

Another grieved that her husband was gone.  She said they never had kids and she no longer has any real family to speak of.  She felt lost in the world.  And the woman replied, “That’s a very painful feeling to carry.  In fact, I carry similar feelings and I’ve been helped by so many here who are willing to be a new kind of family for me.  We would love to be family for you too.”

Again, she did this for every resident who spoke.  Her compassion emerged naturally in response to the authentic laments of our little community, and as she gave voice to her compassion, I think she kindled the group’s compassion as well.  In an unexpected way she made the moment sacred, which in the end is what we most need.  We need to know that whatever’s happening within and around us, we are on sacred ground.  That God has us, that God is near, that God is speaking, maybe in the voices of those who grieve, maybe in the voices of those who respond.

The last thing I want to say has to do with Mark’s gospel passage.  It’s commonly called “The Little Apocolypse,” only because it is short in verse, not in scope.  It’s still big, and cosmic, and profoundly disorienting.  It’s still an end-time vision of divine victory and glory, which I don’t know how to interpret except to say that in the end, whenever that may be, it is Christ, his will and his way, that prevails.  What I want to note is that what comes next in the gospel is not big; it is small and human.   It is broken people (in the next verses) intent on Jesus’ crucifixion, and it is a lowly woman in the home of a leper anointing Jesus’ body with oil for his burial.

The contrast seems important to me as we get only this snippet of Mark’s gospel today.  I think that what Mark is saying is that the Christ of apocalyptic glory is the same Christ who befriends the poor, the unclean, and the marginalized.  He’s the same Christ who gives himself to and for the needs of the world.  Whatever we make of end-time visions I think what we have is the assurance that God’s final cosmic victory is made manifest in the simple, extravagant generosity offered by the least of these to a dying savior.  In other words, we can awaken to, and even embrace, God’s coming more easily than we might imagine.  It’s about knowing our need as we meet the needs of others with compassion while waiting with hope and expectation for the surprising revelations of our God.


[i] Toxic positivity: Definition, risks, how to avoid, and more (