December 3, 2017 – Unsettling Advent


Text: Isaiah 64:1-9

Advent. I have been thinking about the meaning of this season. The church has taught us that it is a time of waiting for God’s arrival. During the season, we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the birth of Christ, the God who came as a baby lying in a manger, and the God who is still coming to us.

It’s not waiting idly, we are told, but wait expectantly: while waiting, pay attention, expect the unexpected, keep awake, and watch for the signs. They are all good messages, but I find them not enough as I try to capture the essence of Advent. Perhaps, I am tired of waiting. Worse yet, I have never been good at waiting. I am also tired of hearing those messages which imply passive and uninvolved attitudes. I need more than waiting.

Wise teachers help us see the Christ in the most unlikely places. William Kurelek, for example, in his famous book, A Northern Nativity, shows us all the places that the Christ child must be born today. He dreams that God is born to Inuits, to Indigenous people, to Black Canadians that the Nativity takes place in a fisherman’s hut, a garage, a barn, and that the holy family is given refuge in a city mission, a grain barn, and a country school.

This is by far the most inspiring Christmas book I’ve ever read. It invites us to see God right where we are. The Christ child is born again and again to the marginalized: the vulnerable, the lonely, the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed. I need, however, more than seeing or dreaming. I want to participate in the Nativity that is still happening today. That is, I think, what the artist intends the readers of the book to do.

If you are one of them, the book implies, rejoice for the Christ child is born to you. If you find your place too comfortable, the book teaches, get out of your comfort zone and go and find the Christ in the most unlikely places you can think of.

Whatever the case may be, we must encounter the God who reaches out. Advent is more than a time of waiting, more than a time of seeing or dreaming. It is a time for us to reach out to one another and to others because God has reached out and is still reaching out to all of us.

Reaching out is part of our human nature. We not only need to reach out to others, but also need others to reach out to us. We weave our lives with constant stitches of reaching out to one another from young to old. A baby is a wonderful reminder that reaching out is a necessity for us to survive. They can’t say, I have a need of you. We just know they need help, so we reach out to attend to them. We are fascinated at the presence of a baby, because their vulnerability speaks louder demanding reaching out from other human beings.

What is so natural becomes unnatural as we get older. Reaching out becomes a rare event. There are so many things we have to consider before we reach out to someone. We have been taught to respect privacy, not to cross the personal boundary, and not to put others on the spot. Most of the time, we just wait until they reach out to us for help. We have been accustomed to staying in a comfort zone, forgetting that reaching out is a part of our nature. We say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. We praise those who speak out, and blame those who remain silent. We value the personal right over the communal responsibility.

Are we happy with how much choice we have? In my local grocery store, I counted how many questions I get from a cashier. Do you have a phone number with us? That’s the first question they ask in order to keep my shopping record for my own benefit as I can get reward after accumulating enough points. The question indicates that they care about customers and their rights, and what we buy. And then I get endless questions, like ‘Would you like a plastic bag or a paper bag?’ ‘Would you like your milk in a bag?’ ‘Would you like your meat in a separate plastic bag? ‘Would you like your receipt in a bag or with you?’ This is just a glimpse of how our society is overly focused on rights rather than responsibilities. Whereas, how often are we asked whether we look after one another especially the most vulnerable ones in our society?

Conflict studies scholar Franklin Dukes declares that North Americans are facing a governance and public policy crisis because society is overly focused on rights rather than responsibilities, to the detriment of the public good. He points out that public policy disagreements are not just disputes over competing interests but that they involve struggles for recognition, identity, status and other resources. Another challenge is that whereas rights are socially constructed and legally granted (usually to individuals), responsibilities are more informal, carry more of a collective obligation, and can vary according to cultural teachings.[1]

If Advent is a time of reaching out, the life-giving message we need to hear in this season is not so much about individual rights, as community responsibilities, like Ubuntu. Ubuntu means “I am, because you are, or I am what I am because of who we all are”. Although the word comes from southern Africa, the concept of Ubuntu is universal throughout Africa. It is a way of life with the fundamental belief that there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities.

Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu as the essence of human being. “It speaks about wholeness and compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, oppressed or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows. A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?

Ubuntu is not foreign to us, followers of Christ. Didn’t Jesus embody such a way of life, being able to see the light in everyone he met? Didn’t he teach us to love others as we love ourselves?

Advent is more than a time of waiting or preparing. Advent invites us to examine our own values and the way things are in our society. Advent invites us to begin with the God who came as the most vulnerable one, a baby lying in a manger, who desperately needs reaching out from all of us. So, in this Advent, we get out of our comfort zone, reaching out to one another and to others, no matter how uncomfortable or unsettling we may feel. For the Christ will be born again and again in the most unlikely places we can think of.

[1] Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within, p. 44. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.