(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on December 9, 2016)
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14, NRSV).
Right now, we are in the midst of what is called the Advent season. Advent is the period of time leading up to Christmas. It is the time in which the Church looks forward with hope and anticipation to the coming of the Savior. It is a time of preparation. We believe that it is important to make ourselves ready and make the world hospitable to God’s presence.
There is a great Woody Allen film that came out a number of years ago called Midnight in Paris. The protagonist goes to Paris with his fiancée and her family. He is a writer and he is obsessed with a certain period and place in history: the 1920s in Paris where his heroes, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived. One night, he is wandering around the city and gets lost. Then, at the stroke of midnight, he is transported back through time to the 1920s. It takes some time to realize it, but before long, he is brushing shoulders with Hemingway and the others. Night after night, he goes back to the same place at midnight in Paris and is transported back in time. The film is amusing and imaginative. As the plot progresses, the protagonist becomes more and more involved with his nightlife in the past. And as he does, his relationships in the present become strained.
There are all kinds of reasons that people can become fixated on the past. Indeed, there are many ways that past can exert power over people trying to live in the here and now. The film deals with a particular human phenomenon called “nostalgia.” Nostalgia is when we romanticize the past. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked back on the past and judged it as a better time than the now. But when I’m rigorously honest, I know that isn’t often true. I conveniently forget the pain and struggle of where I used to be. It’s a matter of subjective and selective remembrance of a golden age long ago. An objective view would reveal that things weren’t always better. Some people in the United States romanticize the 1950s, for example. But an objective view would reveal that the standard of living was lower, average incomes were lower, tax rates were way higher (look it up, it will make your eyes pop), and there was far more violence, war and danger in the world, particularly during the nuclear uncertainty of the Cold War. Much of the reason there was such unrest in the 1960s and 70s was because of inherent instabilities of 1950s society. But when we flip through an old photo album, see an old black and white rerun, or watch a cinema classic, we forget those things. Of course, there are other ways in which the past exerts influence over us. Regret, shame, guilt over past sins and mistakes tend to control us. And harm committed against us can affect us in the present.
When the apostle Paul, who wrote the scripture passage printed above, wrote to the church in Rome, he was reminding them that as disciples of Jesus, we are not focused on the past. We no longer live under the influence of the past. Yesterday is like a long night, and right now, we stand just moments before the coming dawn. You see, as Christians, we are not controlled by the past and we do not try to recapture the past. For Christians, the world’s redemption happens in the future. The kingdom of God is coming reality and like the impending dawn, it can’t be stopped. In the kingdom, we will delight in the constant presence, peace and love of God and we will be bonded to one another in that love. And it is coming. It is not the past that dictates the life of a Christian; it is the glorious and imminent future. And for the baptized, we affirm that while we still have one foot in the present, we also stand partly in the future as though our faces were being illuminated by the rays of light just beyond the horizon.
So, Paul says, live as though in the light. Live as though the dawn has come. Jesus’ reign of power and grace is upon us, so live as though it were already here. One doesn’t wait until the dawn is already here to get dressed. We know that it is coming, so we prepare. Put aside the way we used to live, satisfying the flesh. Instead, wake up! Put on the armor of light, put on Christ himself. This is how the Church prepares for the coming of the Savior on Christmas morning. Not only will Christ find a hospitable place to make his dwelling, but other people who still live in the darkness will see our light and be drawn to it. That’s how we proclaim the good news and tell the world, Merry Christmas.