Last weekend I was walking through the local mall when I get passed by Santa Claus. He’s being escorted by mall security and greeting people as he goes by. Looks a little thin this year, I think. Already my mind is turning to the task of buying Christmas presents. I notice that the mall is full, even though I’m there while the Steelers are playing (bless me, for I have sinned). Santa is headed towards his seat, beside which his elves are keeping in order a long line of expectant children. All of this, and we haven’t had Thanksgiving yet. My sense of calendar has become disoriented.
The calendar of our spiritual lives is oriented around a single point. Jesus is on the cross, dying. The thief beside him begs, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The thing we know now, and which needs to be preached, is that his kingdom is fully there at that moment. The kids on St Nick’s lap say, “Santa remember me when you come upon the 24th of December.” They look for a future event, when what they hope for becomes realized. Santa does not say, “Oh Tommy, you don’t have to wait. I’ve got your fire truck toy right here.” But Jesus says to the thief, “Amen. Today, you are with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Dodd calls this ‘realized eschatology.’
This may change the way I do Advent this year. Traditionally, I think of the weeks before Christmas as preparation time for Jesus to be born, or made visible, for a brief time. Like Santa, he has his day. The fact that the two of them compete for the same day underlines the craziness of making Advent all about waiting for some spiritual God-gift due to be given on a future date. The thieves on the cross were undergoing a transitional process; they were dying. Jesus was with both of them. When we go through transition in our lives, Jesus is with us. When we are ready to receive new spiritual truth, Jesus provides it. The point of the journey is not to look forward to a future kingdom. The point is to open our eyes and see God’s kingdom in our current situation.
The story of the men who were crucified with Jesus becomes more poignant when you realize that they weren’t thieves, as we think of robbers. They most likely were Zealots. They were people who had left their normal jobs in order to live as guerrillas, up in the hills. They stole from outlying villages because they needed food and supplies. They chose this dangerous and disgusting lifestyle because they believed the time was coming when God would use them to kick out the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God. Both of them dreamed of a day when the Messiah (Jesus) would sit upon the throne. One was not bad and the other a good thief. They were both on a spiritual transition through a difficult wilderness. One was a little further along than the other. One understood that Jesus was God with him, and so he asked for what lay at the heart of his life’s quest. Jesus said, “It’s not in the future. Today the Kingdom is with you.”
So it is a good thing that we begin the season with Jesus and the two thieves. Like the crucifixion scene, our Thanksgiving table may host some lively debate, or even family conflict. We should be non-anxious presences at that table, realizing that people aren’t good and bad, but rather at differing places in their journey. As we enter into December, the world will tend to make us want to rush. It will say, “there are only this many days until THE DATE!” This is also a time in which perfectionism will be justified by the saying “Christmas only comes once a year.” Martha Stewart, not Jesus, will be put before us as our guide. Just remember that Jesus waits beside you. When you are ready for new spiritual truth, he will provide it.
I hope to be more mindful this year of the way the journey to Bethlehem speaks to those undergoing transition in their personal lives. We might want to listen to the first chapter of Luke afresh, and sense the present tense joy in Elizabeth, Mary, and Zachariah, when they speak about the miracle they are living through. Today!