If I'm given to somewhat mournful, melancholy Christmas music, I come by it honestly. Take Sufjan Stevens' beautiful Christmas song, entitled "Justice Delivers Its Death," and the even more beautiful, edenic video that accompanied the song. With words like "Lord, come with fire/ Lord, come with fire/ Everyone's wasting their time/ Storing up treasure in vain/ Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth" you know that this isn't "Silver Bells," and yet the song captures a longing for something more than the rank materialism that prevails this time of year, longs for an end to it. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend from his prison cell, "A prison cell is like our situation in Advent: one waits, hopes, does this and that - meaningless acts - but the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside." We're waiting for something that only began with an incarnate birth. We're waiting for deliverance. And we are not the key to that.
One Christmas morning when I was about six years old, I received a red bicycle from Santa. It had 20-inch wheels and a basket on front. I took the bike out for a ride on our street in Greensboro, and I immediately felt the sensation of freedom, of not being limited to just where my feet could take me. This land is my land. This ribbon of highway. Surry Drive lay before me like Route 66. And when it began to snow, I remember thinking something like "This is as good as it gets," felt some inarticulable sense of. . . of. . . deliverance from, if not a jail cell, at least from the cloistered life of childhood. Free. Bound for glory. Only I couldn't put Guthrie's words to it then. I squeaked out a mere "Cool!"
You think about such things in this season of good cheer. As Bonhoeffer preached on an Advent Sunday in 1928,
When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us, and a special kind of warmth slowly encircles us. The hardest heart is softened. We recall our own childhood. . . . A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart, for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father. And that leads our thoughts to the curse of homelessness which hangs heavy over the world. In every land, the endless wandering without purpose or destination.
Bonhoeffer goes on to note that what weighs heavy on us in Advent is the reality of sin and death, and I would add that its our longing for justice, for a God to come and set all things right, undo the curse of homelessness, and bring to end the slog of the shadowlands. Cheery? Hardly. For Bonhoeffer and most Christians throughout the ages, Advent has been a sober time. The real celebrating starts with the Birth.
I rode my red bicycle a lot that winter. Though this was before ET's screen debut and the dreams of every kid with a bike were visualized, at times I felt as if I could soar just so slightly above the pavement, hovering, indestructible. And yet, I had accidents. I ran into a parked school bus. Showing off for a girl, I turned my red bike over, scraped all the skin off my arm, and yet contained all tears until I had furiously pedaled the half mile to my home. Home. Delivered. The place where you can let it out, where you can be yourself, where, if you are blessed, your mother waits with open arms.
The "everlasting lodging of the Father." I had (and have) a great home, both cities of refuge for one who is sometimes fainthearted. Still, I'm homesick. Aren't you?
Comforting his disciples, Jesus said that "if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am" (Jn. 14:3). Some of us will leave our busted bikes where they crashed and bleeding run home crying. For others it may be a call to dinner, like my Mom yelling out the kitchen door "Stephennnnnn" and even above the click-click-click of the playing cards on my tire spokes I hear her and throw down my red bike and come running. And yet for others it's an incredible invitation to a party where all the uncool and poorly dressed people get to come too, where the the fans of Portlandia, Duck Dynasty, and Lawrence Welk break bread together. It's the everlasting lodging of the Father. Underneath the tinsel, colored lights, and holiday parties, that's what we're waiting for --- a place of our own. That's Advent.