parkdale united church

429 Parkdale Avenue, OTTAWA, Ontario K1Y 1H3

December 2019

Advent and Christmas Themes

In late November and early December, my wife Wendy was in South Africa for work meetings. Before she left we were reminded of the wonderful trip we took with a group of Parkdalers and others to South Africa 5 years ago. I was also reminded that December 5 this year, is the 6th anniversary of the death of Nelson “Madiba” Mandela. Permit me to share again some of the reflections of that trip expressed through Advent and Christmas themes.

The traditional Advent and Christmas themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, Love….awe, repentance, wonder, vulnerability, song seemed to resonate on the trip.

In his autobiography Mandela tells of his joy when, during those years of oppressive imprisonment on Robben Island, he was introduced to his new baby granddaughter in a rare prison visit. In her face he saw the future of his people. It was customary for the grandfather to name the babies in the family, so he chose her name. She would be called Zaziwe, which means Hope. She would be named not only for his own sense of hope<, but for a hopeful future for his people.

There was also a deep sense of awe kindled in us as we traveled around being blessed by the beauty of the country, the big game animals, the flowering bushes and plants and the spectacular vistas. As well, that awe and wonder arose from meeting some wonderful, hospitable and dedicated people like Cynthia. An older woman who could not stand to see so many children in the Kayalethu Township near Knysna go without schooling, she opened up her modest home. First the living room, then her bedroom for the cribs, then the other room, until she received some funding to build a modest classroom. She did not want to turn any children away and so was looking to use the remaining land around her house to build another classroom.

The joy of the children was contagious as they sang, danced and recited

But Advent also speaks of repentance. True repentance has to do with changing one’s ways, not only one’s mind; that is, the ongoing changing of one’s ways to match the ways of God. In one of the Advent gospel lessons, John the Baptizer calls on the people to produce fruit; this points to a concrete way of producing fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8). Nelson Mandela modeled this in his own life. He changed his ways. At one point in the struggle against apartheid, he set up the African National Congress' armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), in 1961 when he lost hope that passive and non-violent resistance to the violence of the apartheid government would bear fruit. He wrote: “A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a certain point, one can only fight fire with fire."

However, during his time of imprisonment he changed his mind and his ways. He acknowledged this: “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way.” Further, he pleaded: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Some say it was for pragmatic reasons that he changed; perhaps that was a part of it. However there was more to it. When he emerged from prison and shocked the nation of South Africa and the world by calling for forgiveness and reconciliation and peace, this was more than tactics. A CNN reporter asked Mandela what led him to make such a radical call after how he had been treated for twenty-seven years in prison. He told the reporter that when he was young he attended a Methodist mission school and that he attended chapel services. He remembered the words of Jesus who said to love and forgive your enemies. This is what he said inspired him. He would say later on of his release from prison and ascendency to the presidency, “Without the church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today.”

Along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev. Alan Boesak, Mandela was at the forefront of trying to build peace and reconciliation in South Africa in the midst of violence, oppression, racism, despair and poverty. Advent speaks of Peace and points to the Prince of Peace as the source, inspiration and ultimate bringer of Peace. Mandela knew efforts in peace building needed to be ongoing, practical and bold and not merely lip service. He lived by the words, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."

The Scriptures imagine a comprehensive ‘Peace’ - shalom, one that is pregnant with justice and joy and right relationships – such as our Aboriginal brothers and sisters here in Canada are calling for. And so, for South Africa, Canada and the world…we pray, long for and act to engender this peace. This requires a certain personal and communal vulnerability: the making of space for others in our economy, our politics and our laws, policies and processes. Most significantly it means opening up ourselves to God and others in love.

Christian contemplative Richard Rohr writes: Jesus is a teacher of vulnerability, more than anything else”. Pope Benedict recently said: “Jesus is inviting us to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties [and] make ourselves a gift of unbounded love.”

Advent speaks of love and points us toward the source of love, the greatest of all gifts. As the poem written by Christina Rosetti and set to music declares:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:

Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men, {people}

Mandela said so eloquently, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” 

May the Love, Hope, Joy and Peace of the Christ who rescues us indeed come to every heart, every community, every country, every war, every conflict, every wound. And may we discover the sheer joy of living as Advent and Christmas people all year round. For the angels have proclaimed:

“Do not be afraid, I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.”   Luke 2:10



Blessed Advent and Christmas to you all