If He does not remove those vexations, we do not suppose ourselves to be neglected by Him, but rather, in patient endurance of evil, hope to be made partakers of greater good, for so His strength is perfected in our weakness.
Letter 130 of St. Augustine to Proba, Chapter 14, 26.
This Advent, I have found myself more often than not, truly vexed.
I was annoyed at the man in the unmarked black van who offered me a ride ("Where're you going? airport? downtown? uptown?") when I was waiting for the bus. (Seriously? Really? Oh perfect, I was actually just waiting for an unmarked van to kidnap me thank goodness you arrived.)
I was perplexed by the ease and routine with which humans can lie and take advantage of one another.
I was distraught by the violence and the injustice that seems to be ceaselessly perpetuated, world without end, one human against another.
I was frustrated by the commercialism of the Christmas season in New York City.
While the Rockefeller Center tree, the ice-skating, and the pop-up shops in Bryant Park are all lovely, and I enjoy walking by the clever window displays in Lord & Taylor and Saks 5th Avenue as much as the next person (and grumbling about "tourists blocking up the sidewalk" grumble, grumble), they are not quite the point. They are like cream cheese on a really good bagel. Really good bagels don't need cream cheese. If you have a really good bagel, then cream cheese is just a nice additional fun thing. But if you have lived on crappy bagels all your life (as I have for the majority of my life), then you're going to live in the delusion of thinking that cream cheese is a vital part of eating a bagel.
When, really, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Really good bagels don't need cream cheese; and Christmas doesn't need to have any fancy window displays or glitter to be Christmas.
(Oh this is very Seussian: Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...perhaps... means a little bit more. Let's see if I can steer this poor post away from a sloppy Death by Sentiment)
I'm not trying to be a Grinch, because I love sparkly lights and holiday-ish razzle-dazzle. I love all of it. It's magical and marvelous, and it puts a bounce in my step on a day that I'm dragging my feet (usually. Unless I'm walking behind a someone who's laden down with shopping bags. Then it's grumble grumble commercialism grumble grumble.)
But it's not the point, and I think a lot of people are rightly frustrated by Christmas, when the only sort of Christmas they see is a lights display on 5th Avenue, carols blasting over H&M's loudspeaker, and weekend sales at Tiffany's.
What is the point of this sort of Christmas, this rather excessive display? When the world is so full of vexation and injustice, full of murder and mayhem.
If only, perhaps, we would look a little harder, we would see a little child born--not unto a wealthy brownstone on Upper West Side, or an apartment on East 63rd and 5th--not born in the midst of splashy displays of Palestinian wealth, but inside a humble stable. I think of this stable every time I pass the grungy garage next to the bodega down the block.
I would not want to give birth to a child in that garage, nor would I want to spend the night in that garage with my first born. And in fact, I think if there were a donkey and an ox inside that barn with me, I would throw a hissy fit instead of "pondering all these things in my heart." There would be words, and I'm not talking about the good tidings of great joy kind. I would be one incredibly peeved theotokos.
But that is what Christmas is about: that God entered the world in the midst of inconvenience and discomfort, in the midst of trial and tribulation instead of comfort and glamour.
Christ did not come to dispel all inequality and injustice--if only it were that simple. If only God could wave a magic wand and turn us into automatons that treated each other with kindness and love all the time, and were selfless instead of selfish. Rather, Christ chose to enter the world to assure the victims of inequality that they are not alone; He came to enter into the struggle for justice on the side of the underdog. Which, if that was Christmas is all about, it seems to me to be a very relevant sort of holiday for our world, a world rife with violence, unrest, confusion, and despair.
Then, perhaps the moments this Advent when I have been most indignant, frustrated, annoyed, confused, perplexed, and pissed-off are the moments where I have been truly preparing myself for Christmas.
Those are the moments I have been acknowledging how broken our world is--and how broken I myself am--and how I need a savior so desperately, along with the rest of this mess of a globe.
If only this was what we thought of when someone wished us a Merry Christmas:
May, in all your moments of darkness, of sadness, of great pain, you understand that the one to whom you cry is right beside you--that God has truly come to dwell with you.
Now. Here. In the intimate particular of our lives.