The coincidence of Advent, Christmas and the new calendar year creates an engaging combination of expectation, reflection and resolution. It can change the way we see things and create resolutions for new commitments in the new year.
If we let it.
I spent a good part of this past year lamenting the state of our collective consciousness, identifying what and whom to blame it on, and occasionally giving in to the hopelessness that disguises itself as realism and thinks that this is just the way it is.
One of the gifts of Advent and Christmas this time around for me has been the steady stream of encouragement in EthicsDaily.com articles to reflect on the significance of all that Christmas affirms for us as a light in the darkness.
Readers will recall the many expressions of this encouragement, including reports of interfaith teamwork to reduce the incidence of malaria, prophetic words applying the values of what we claim in this season to the hard issues of our time, and the personal reflections on how the truths disclosed in the Incarnation can change the world in small and large ways.
A consequence of this encouragement has been a renewed sense of awe at the wonder of the mystery that surrounds and infuses all of life. It has led me away from resolutions that won’t be kept to embrace a prayer for the new year that a deepened reverence will find its way into our lives, personally and collectively.
The reverence I am thinking about is not limited to the quiet solemnity of serious occasions or the warm feelings we experience in the context of familiar rituals. It is, more broadly, the capacity we all have when we are aware of being in the presence of a reality much greater than ourselves and our understandings.
For many, it is thought of in specific religious terms; for others it is not. For all, it seems to reflect the kind of intellectual and theological humility that recognizes the partiality of our understandings of the ultimate mystery and resists the temptation to claim absolute “rightness” for any of those understandings. It is a liberating and humbling awareness of our need for each other and of the wonder of creation’s communion.
The value of this kind of reverence for our life together as a human community in a context that includes the rest of our planet’s life is obvious.
It would lead us away from the injustice, exploitation, greed, waste, indifference, disrespect, arrogance and competition that produce such imbalance and hostility in our world.
It would point us toward the respect, compassion, community and stewardship of our resources that lead to the health, peace and shalom that are ever held before us as possibilities.
Since few would claim to be against reverence as a quality of life, the greater risk is probably the tendency to reduce or trivialize it to its more superficial expressions.
When we ignore the profound in our quest for the spectacular, when we prefer the attractiveness of the package over the quality of its content, when we abandon the opportunity for awe while looking for the “awesome,” or when we substitute dogmatic certainty for the trusting faith of living in the mystery of God’s covenant partnership, we are accepting a mess of pottage in exchange for our birthright as creatures made in the image of God.
Irreverence in its blatant forms is offensive and easy to reject. In its subtle forms, it is more dangerous to who we are as humans in community because it is often so appealing.
What would our personal relationships, community life, workplaces, political deliberations and even our international relations be like if they were infused with the virtue of reverence in the most profound sense?
The many fellow pilgrims along life’s way, in private and public life, who reflect this reverence show us the possibilities. I plan to watch them more closely this year.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.