It’s pretty common to hear people, not least Protestants, talk about what they might give up for
Lent. Some of them even follow through and make a commitment. And while some of the resulting
privations can have nice utilitarian consequences—weight loss, more productive use of time—others
represent a real sacrifice. They radiate a sacramental quality, being an outward and visible sign of a
genuine inner penitence.
Advent is a penitential season too, yet I’ve never heard about giving anything up for the duration.
Quite the contrary. Tis the season to get: to compose a wish list of things wanted or a shopping list of
things to be given—but therefore gotten first. The syndrome is so acute that even laments against it are
long dead from overuse. Yet, we need to state the case, briefly, to see the scale of the problem. Outside,
there is no time of the year in which the commands and demands of material plentitude more thickly
saturate the air than in the lead-up to Christmas. Inside, the urgency of being happy is so stressed (in both
senses of the term) that psychologists have to go public to say it’s alright to be sad. If you need a primer
on the “antithesis between the church and the world,” December’s your month.
So maybe the call to penitence needs a concrete sacrifice to make itself heard. Maybe we need
to “give up something” for Advent. The idea came home to me for the first time in last Sunday’s sermon.
It was about the cost of the Incarnation, only it glanced over the usual proof cases. Yes, the eternal second
person of the trinity gave up much to enter human flesh (let’s sing the kenosis hymn now). Yes, the
young Mary gave up reputation and autonomy in assenting to Gabriel’s call. But what about Joseph, my
pastor asked. What did this process cost him?
Joseph’s was not a star sacrifice, she pointed out. No reward of being first in line to accept the
Messiah, no promise of returning in glory to the Father after conquering death. Just the usual slog of
parenthood, male-side, all climaxing with a smack across the face. The 12-year-old boy-about-to-become-
a-man stands up—in the Temple, no less—and announces that now he, the son, would be about his
father’s business, and that it wasn’t carpentry. In one stark moment Joseph sees that his sacrifices—his
reputation, his hopes for an heir, his plans for the rest of his life before that thing happened with Mary—
were bupkis. And with that, Joseph disappears from Scripture.
An ordinary man, pursuing a good and ordinary goal. Stunned by the extraordinary, and trying to
figure it out. It’s easy enough for us to fly back and tell Joseph that he’s trapped in conventional thinking,
that the savior of the world is at hand and the reward structure has changed, etc., etc. But that “etc.”
signals our own conventional habits, as we rush about under the strain of year-end work, the crush of
seasonal shopping, and the extra cycle of lessons and carols and other sacred litanies where we hope to
catch our breath and collect our thoughts and get the holiday spirit.
Alas, the litanies can be the worst of the problem. That’s how it happened the first time around.
The good folk of Judea, the most pious among them first of all, had lots of observances and genuinely
good deeds and elevated plans for preserving the kingdom of God, and these all got in the way of seeing
the savior—got in the way so badly that they led to collaborating with the secular powers in killing him
off. We have to be empty to see him. We have to have nothing left to give. We have to be holding on to
nothing in order to be caught up in the everlasting arms.
All this we’ve heard time and again. Perhaps that’s why it took another sermon, a very short one
told in a most unusual place, to have the story come alive again. It was the calm words spoken during
the meditative phase at the end of yoga practice. Ok, the teacher is seminary-trained and had to pass
someone’s muster to be permitted to lead yoga at my proudly Christian college. But still—having united
breath and motion in exercises that quiet the mind, it turned out that day that an empty space had indeed
opened up in me where I could receive. Let’s not give something for Christmas, the instructor said, but
receive. Receive a promise. Receive no presents but a presence.
Yes, yoga’s good for you, so there’s utilitarian advantage in this empyting too. But it models
the quiet where we can hear a call, an open moment to feel Joseph’s hurt and know quite simply that life
comes in only when we’ve renounced our hold on the good thing we count most precious among this
life’s gifts. That, just that, all of that, is what I need to give up for Advent.