In January of this year, when neighbors had packed up Christmas trees, and the spirit of organization and resolution was in the air, I read this blog post by a dear friend in Norway. The message was simple: We have a choice. Rather than engage in January cleansing, we could participate in Epiphany.
I like fresh starts, and I like early morning ocean swims (we live in Sydney, Australia), so I like the tasks that January cleansing brings. By contrast, my friend’s idea of leaving the nativity scene out at home until the first of February was almost horrifying! Yet her argument was persuasive. Christmas, the celebration of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ, who was born into our messy world, requires a time, not only of celebration, but also of extended reflection.
By the first day of 2014, I already knew we had a big, exciting year ahead. Engaged the night before, my now-husband and I had a wedding to organize. I had my D.Phil. to complete, my book manuscript to finish, and my newly minted tech start-up to build.
However, it was transformative to be reminded that Christmas had not just provided respite from a busy world, and that the New Year was not just an opportunity to get things in order. The beginning of the New Year does not herald, mercilessly, the beginning of a new production schedule. And Christmas is not mere preparation for that.
No. As Christians, our liturgical claim is different.
So, as Advent draws to its high point of expectation in this year, we must also come to terms with the restless anxiety that we are not yet ready to down tools and celebrate.
Walter Brueggemann, in his Sabbath as Resistance, writes that our God—the God of the Sabbath commandment—is a God who rests. That can sound trite at a time when we are trying to create, build, and finish work. However, our God is not just a God who rests but one who “emancipates from slavery and consequently from the work system of Egypt and from the gods of Egypt who require and legitimate that work system.”
Brueggemann reminds us that, “in the narrative imagination of Israel, the gods of Egypt are stand-ins for all the gods of the several empires. What they have in common is that they are confiscatory gods who demand endless systems of production that are, in principle, insatiable.”
The glory of Pharaoh relied upon the endless production of bricks in order to build more cities and to store his material wealth (Exod. 1:11). The life of Pharaoh’s supervisors, right down to his slaves, was determined by this insatiable production schedule. Their lives were defined by Pharaoh’s pyramid scheme: their sense of place in the social hierarchy; their sense of worth; and the ruthless pace of their daily work.
Into this world came a voice from the outside, one that could say “Let my people go” (Exod. 5:1)! A voice that could say, “Let my people go” from the Pharaonic system in which they’d been told, “You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks” (Exod. 5:19), even though they now had to gather their own straw just to make them (vv. 7–8). It was voice that could say this with authority.
God could make this emancipating gift to his people because he made life and placed Sabbath rest at the center of it. Creation is not sustained through or because of a production schedule of commodity but through covenantal relationship.
At this point, the very height of Advent, we prepare for the celebration of God’s emancipating gift of Christ in the world, sent and born into the messiness of our tyrannical pyramid schemes; into our insatiable production schedules; and into the idolatrous systems to which we are beholden.
While we remember God’s gift in Christ to the whole world, we have the opportunity at this point in Advent to receive the gift of rest. Not just for ourselves, but, like Moses reminded the people in Deuteronomy, so that others may rest “like you.” By aligning ourselves with God’s gift, we enact an alternative narrative and make it easier for others to receive it as well.
As those of us with office jobs enact the secular liturgy of turning on “out-of-office” messages on email accounts, we have the chance to re-narrate what it means to be “out-of-office.” For many, putting an “out-of-office” message on a work email account brings on a flood of anxiety: that others will continue to get ahead while we take time out; that we have not done enough; that we don’t deserve rest; or that, in taking rest, we might lose our work.
So strong is this narrative that the fear, guilt, and anxiety is almost palpable in strangely uniform out-of-office messages. If we cannot be robots in a production line, then our automated messages can be.
Having received the gift of rest, the idea that we could take ownership of the narrative and re-story our out-of-office messages is powerful, and it is frightening. I’ve edged into this practice, lately and slowly.
Last Christmas, I wrote:
“Thank you for writing. I’m about to close up my MacBook for Christmas and New Year. Just in time to enjoy some as-yet-unbaked shortbread dough, before a holiday with my family. I’ll read your email early in the New Year and will be in touch.”
By the middle of the year, I wrote for our wedding and honeymoon:
“Our nuptial hour
Draws on a pace;
Seven happy days bring in
I will return to my desk on Thursday 7 August.”
(After writing that, my then-fiancé started emailing me, just to have a giggle.)
What will I write this year for Christmas? I haven’t decided yet. But I have enjoyed pondering this in those moments when work does not seem like it will end. How we receive the gift of rest matters deeply to how others may receive it too—to our families and neighbors; to co-workers who seek re-assurance; to those who are fearful and are under-employed, under-paid or without paid employment.
Kate Harrison Brennan is the Founder of Global & Smart (www.globalandsmart.com), a storytelling platform for “the story behind the good.” Kate studied international development at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and spent the last year of her doctoral studies at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton on a visiting fellowship. She returned home to Australia from New York, where she had been working, to be Advisor to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her edited volume, Making Global Institutions Work, was published by Routledge this fall. Kate and her husband are part of St George’s Anglican Church in Sydney’s Paddington.
Photo: Brian Lary