The sermon about the dragon seemed an intrusion into our Advent and Christmas spirit.
When entering church I was stili thinking about the VCR we had bought after long deliberation. And our children were coming home for Christmas; it had been six months since we had seen them last.
The sanctaury, with its poin-settias and Advent wreath, looked beautiful and peaceful. And the choir anthem was marvelous. The spirit was one of peace, festivity, and joy.
And Jesus was coming again. Let's not forget Jesus. More reason for joy. How could I forget the real reason?
But then the preacher started talking about the Dragon. Actually the sermon was about the Child, the Woman, and the Dragon. The Child is life in all its beauty and promise, from Seth to the Christ Child. The Woman is the source and bearer of life, from Eve to Mary to the Church. Fitting themes these, in a season in which the church highlights light and life.
But the Dragon didn't fit. The Dragon is the destroyer of life. His name is Cain and Midian and Herod and Nero and Stalin. The victims are the innocents, the martyrs, the mute sufferers— including the innocents at Bethlehem, the suffering in an African refugee camp, the tortured in South American prisons, the exploited in Third World countries, the forgotten in Siberian work camps. The preacher's litany of suffering and his statistics of exploitation, starvation, and torture, cast a sober pall over the Advent spirit. The expensive purple candles seemed gauche to me as I contemplated an Andean peasant scrabbling in the rocky soil.
True—the preacher ended his sermon on a note of hope. The light has shined; the light does shine; the light will reappear. The Advent gospel is a message of hope. But our closing song had a somber undertone, and I had disquieting feelings about introducing an image of torture into an Advent service.
It was the purple candle that helped me get my perplexities in focus. That same week I had been reading on the history of Advent. Historians tell us that the early commemorations of Advent were penetential occasions. The focus was on our moral grubbiness, on our violation of God's law, and on our response of remorse, penitence, and fasting. No beer, no fat fish, no lovemaking during Advent. Advent was to be a reminder of why the Christ Child had to come—to fight sin, to banish the darkness, to conquer the Dragon. And the appropriate colors for looking sin in the face and for penitence are black and purple.
In later centuries the festive note of Advent took over; light and celebration were deemed a more appropriate mode for anticipating the birth of Christ.
Today that festive mood reigns supreme in both shopping mall and sanctuary. That's probably as it should be: the Light of the world should be anticipated with lightness of heart.
But it's important that we remember that the Dragon of suffering and evil isn't really conquered by tinsel or even the Advent wreath. The African child is still hungry. The Andean peasant is still exploited. I need to hear that, even during Advent. My year-end contribution and my political letter for Bread for the World ought to be as generous and heartfelt as my joy about the children coming home.
When we achieve that kind of balance, we will find that confronting evil and suffering around us helps us confront the dragons of destruction. Love and sacrifice were unified in the Christ Child. They should also be unified in those who anticipate his coming.