Sunday, December 17, 2017

Don't Quench the Spirit

“Do not quench the Spirit.” [1 Thessalonians 5:19]

The family Christmas:  never quite perfect, but still important
Far more than any other time of year, the windup to Christmas brings front and center the topic of spirit. Cards, advertisements, TV programming, the constant stream of carols and songs are all calculated to get us into the spirit of the season.
What exactly is the "Spirit of Christmas"?

Exactly what that spirit is, is less than clear.  There are at least four Christmases that are actively in play: the commercial Christmas, the cultural Christmas, the family Christmas, and the religious Christmas.  In broad strokes, each of them has its own idea of what the spirit of Christmas is.  The commercial Christmas is, of course, the spirit of retail.  It gets dressed up as the spirit of generosity and giving.  The cultural Christmas, represented by such staples as “The Nutcracker,” “The Messiah,” and various concerts, programs, and parties, is what I’d call the spirit of cheer.  The family Christmas?  That one is so complicated that I don’t know of a word to characterize what its dominant spirit is, but I’ll take a stab at and call it the spirit of perfection.  Somehow in the context of family more than any other, there is the pressure to have an occasion for solidifying relationships and kinship bonds through such things as returning to one’s roots, sharing meals, decorating houses and exchanging gifts.  The fact that frequently no family Christmas turns out to be absolutely perfect leaves more frustration in its wake than any of the other Christmases.  Finally there is the religious Christmas, the spirit of which is generally one of high emotional intensity with a discernible meditative, reflective component.  
Christmas Eve at Washington National Cathedral 

You can readily see how all four of these Christmases overlap, borrowing imagery and elements from one another.  Rather than rant about how Christmas has been spoiled by secularism and so on, I prefer to look at this planet-wide celebration as a needed annual event on many different levels.  I can think of no better reason to have a worldwide bash than the Coming of the Messiah, however we might understand that advent. 

But there is a downside in all this.  It is possible to quench the spirit.  It is possible to choke it to death.  And if we aren’t sure what the spirit even is, the danger is greater that even though we might not intend to do it, we might in fact stifle it. 

Both the Prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Paul speak directly about the spirit.   And here’s the thing:  the Spirit of Christmas is not a seasonal thing at all.  Nor is it a mood.  Nor is it unique to a day or an event or some conglomeration of activities.  It is in fact the Spirit of God, one name for which is Holy Spirit.  There is no way that we can read, hear, understand, and appropriate the stories of Advent and Christmas without encountering the centrality of the Holy Spirit.  In both the birth narratives, that in Matthew and the other in Luke, it is clear that the action behind the birth of the Messiah is the movement of the Spirit of God. To Mary, the angel Gabriel announces, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”  [Luke 2:35] Likewise in Matthew’s account, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream saying, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” [Matthew 1:20] The net effect of both these stories is the claim that the entire life of Jesus is a documentary of the nature of the Holy Spirit. All the healing, preaching, teaching; all the feeding of multitudes, casting out of evil, crossing of boundaries separating Jew from Gentile, man from woman, outcast from community, poor from rich, child from adult; all the prayer, sacrifice, forgiving of sins:  these are live actions out of the life of Jesus that manifest the Spirit by which he was conceived and through which he was born.

The story in John’s gospel drives home the point even further. John the Baptist identifies himself as a “voice crying in the wilderness,” harking back to a centuries-old prophecy of Isaiah. In this story of the Baptizer answering his questioning visitors about his identity, he says, “I baptize with water.  Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And later he testifies, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” [John 1:26-27; 33]  

That is the link between Jesus, the Spirit of Christmas, and you and me.  In a word, Jesus baptizes us with the same Spirit that descends on and is embodied in him.  He is not a categorically different human being who has little relevance to us beyond teaching us what we are not or implicitly lecturing us on what we can never become.  Even less is Jesus’ main purpose is to get us past a formidable entrance exam into a life after death.  As one of the Church Fathers put it, “What he is by nature, we become by grace.”[1] Put simply, Jesus shows us not only what God is like but what the human being fully alive is—and how that human being thinks and behaves.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in the second century that the glory of God was the human being fully alive, and the model and means of that glory is Jesus.  It is precisely the work of the Spirit to be the power unleashed in us enabling us to become the persons we are created to be—fully alive, fully feeling, fully embodied, fully free, fully human, and full of God.

Do not quench the Spirit.  The most available way to quench the Spirit is to make a habit of telling yourself, “I am not.” Or, “I can’t.” Or, “I can’t be.” Or, “I will never be.” We become the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we are flawed, wicked, evil, and so on, that is exactly what we will become. By the same token, if we make up stuff about ourselves that, however positive, is not true, then we become those lies as well. “I am perfect. I am the best. I am better than you or you or you. I am not accountable to anyone. I can do what I please. I have no responsibility for anyone other than myself.” Those are just a few of the most obvious lies that are just as untrue as a litany of mess about how low-down we are. 

Do not quench the Spirit. The Spirit of God is always the Spirit of charity. God makes it rain on the just and the unjust. 

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice
Which is more than liberty.[2]

Scrooge, icon of the cultural Christmas.  "We can't victimize
the poor and claim to be in the side of God."
So much in our world, embodied in our systems and enshrined in our heroes and values, proclaims a very different standard for human beings.  (One might add that there are many voices claiming that God is neither kind nor merciful but fundamentally angry, punitive, and harsh.) We give ourselves broad permission to be stingy, judgmental, bigoted, racist, sexist, and a host of other human-deprecating things. Not so with Jesus, not so with God, and not so with Holy Spirit. We can’t have an unjust society without quenching the Spirit of righteousness. We can’t be intolerant and claim to be followers of Jesus. We can’t victimize the poor, whether on an individual, corporate, or national level, and claim to be on the side of God, who always is on the side of the poor and the oppressed, righting the injustices of the world.

Do not quench the Spirit. One of the things that people often say of Christmas is that it is “for the children.” I used to get nauseated when I heard that, thinking that it amounted to trivializing Christmas, to ignoring the gigantic implications of the Incarnation of the Word made Flesh in Jesus. But I no longer think that. While I don’t agree that Christmas is essentially about toys and candy, I think it is exactly about becoming as children, without which we will never be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Spirit’s work is emptying, letting go, becoming vulnerable, embracing mortality, and living a life of giving oneself away. Choke off the Spirit fast by hoarding, possessing, controlling, denying your humanness, colluding with dehumanization, or giving into the fears that breed all of those things and more. 

Santa visits a children's hospital
A number of years ago I met a man who told me that he really didn’t enjoy Christmas and hadn’t for some time. I asked him why. He told me that he really had had a terribly difficult experience one year when he was asked to play Santa Claus in a children’s hospital. He gladly donned the obligatory red suit and fake beard and went through the wards cheering up the kids. When he asked one little boy on a cancer ward what he wanted for Christmas, the child said, “I know I’m going to die, Santa, and I’d like nothing more than for you to stay with me. Will you?” Well, what do you do with such a request? Of course he would, said Santa. And he did. For more than 24 hours he sat with the child, holding his hand, comforting the parents, on into the night and into the next day until finally the little boy slipped away.  

“I was totally wrung out by that experience,” said the man. “I can’t even begin to celebrate Christmas without having the whole thing come back to me.” Well, it was not up to me to talk the guy into re-thinking what he had done, and it might be that he never ever has gotten over his troubling experience. But to my mind, if there ever was a story that more aptly captured what the Incarnation of the Word is about, I don’t know that story. It might have spoiled Christmas forever for me, too, and it might for you. But somehow joining humanity in its weakness and giving it company and strength seems to be what God does best. It is not by might, nor by the power of will, but simply by the grace of the Spirit that we can ever do such things. And yet it is in those very moments that the Spirit baptizes us with amazing strength and courage.

You don’t have to go looking for opportunities to do something heroic. Just be yourself, without pretense or shame, and the Spirit will find a way to come alive in you as surely as a little seedling will find its way out from under a log until it finds the light. Treat it tenderly.  Do not quench the Spirit.
Treat it tenderly.
A sermon for Advent III, preached at St. Paul's Church Episcopal, Baden, Maryland, December 17, 2017.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

[1] St. Maximus the Confessor.
[2] Frederick William Faber, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” The Hymnal 1982 (New York:  Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), 469, 470.

No comments: