The War on Advent

Posted by: Richenda at Wednesday December 31, 2014 in

I’ve read a lot of laments this year from church leaders who wish Advent was still a thing and, well, I’m sorry, but it’s not a thing anymore. Yes, let us lament that because Advent was a beautiful liturgical season, but let us also move on. I think fighting Advent-as-it-was is a losing battle. It no longer resonates culturally and it hasn’t for a long time. What we are left with is a list of ‘thou shalt nots.’ For example, thou shalt not, we sternly say, bringeth in the color red before proper Christmas.

But the most egregious sin of all is Christmas caroling before December 25th.

Carolers by Matt Rollefson 2005, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We are the Debbie Downers of the modern Christmas season. Instead of blessing our congregations as they sing lustily and with great courage for the baby Jesus, we hush and shame them and insist they wait until Christmas is culturally over before letting the Angels Hark or Going and Telling It On the Mountain.

We are missing the boat here.

To state the obvious, Advent is a made-up ritual. Advent is a way that the church developed—in tandem with the cultures of the time—to dig into the essential meaning and hope of the coming Christmas season. But, like I said, it’s made-up. There was no Advent for hundreds of years after Jesus was born. If you want to get technical, the first and only ‘real’ advent belongs to Mary. Mary was the first to celebrate Advent and we don’t all do it like she did—with heartburn and swollen ankles.

Journal de bord de la future maman by Laurence Vagner 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Advent is really awesome, it’s just over, that’s all. Maybe it can be reclaimed and reinstituted but maybe not. I think we have to be careful of acting as if our faith is ‘church righteous’ and not Christ centered. If we declare Good to be lost if the rules of the calendar are violated what does that say about God? God breaks all the rules.

For goodness sake if the people want to sing a few Christmas carols how does that hurt you? Maybe, as a tradition for Mary’s sake, we should all also drink Mylanta instead of eggnog. (Btw eggnog is a pagan atrocity. Just saying.)

And I must stop now and apologize for snark. I’m gen x, snark is part of my dna.

What I really want to say is that the beauty of anticipation for Christmas is not dependent on Advent-as-it-was. Just like Mary’s heart was filled with anticipation and wonder for the birth of her child that first (and only real) advent, so the advent rituals that emerged in and of the church became a new and meaningful way to await Christ as a Christian community. This was all Good.

And now, here we are, again, looking at a new way. As a culture I see a lot of Good in how we actually celebrate the coming of Christmas. The only real difference is that we celebrate the anticipation and waiting of Advent not by holding out on Christmas, but by engaging it and interacting with it. For us today, we engage the material of Christmas as part of our real ritual of preparation. Gift shopping, decoration, the tree all goes up—and all of that is an exercise of anticipation. Interaction makes it real for us. We clergy need to shift how we think of ‘waiting’ in liturgical terms in order to make room for our cultural need for sensual (sensing) and intellectual interaction with the object we await.

Preparation and all its associated materials are the modern way we express the anticipation of the material miracle of Christ. As the tree goes up, so does our excitement for the day to come. As the Christmas songs are sung, so we enter into the place of ‘almost but not yet.’ When Thanksgiving dishes are cleared away and we think ahead to Christmas, the anticipation begins. In our mind’s eye we remember Christmases past, and we grow nostalgic. In looking back we prepare to look forward.

By mid-December we smell the pie baking and our mouths hunger for it! Luckily, one of our foodie aunts or uncles has already done some baking and it tastes sooo good! Whoopee! Christmas is coming!!

Mince pie and Christmas lights by Bertie Charman 2010 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

I hear the laments about the loss of Advent by churchfolk and they are right, Advent-as-it-was is not respected or observed any more. I’m sorry. I also hear the main thread of that lament in the observation that the material consumerism of Christmas looms larger and larger and threatens to swamp the manger and replace all the hay with tinsel. With fake glitter-coated sheep everywhere, who knows what will happen next. If glitter gets on the baby Jesus, all will be lost.

Three wise sheep by David Masters 2008 Flickr CC BY 2.0

Yes, the consumer reality of today is antithetical to the sacred reality of Advent. It really hurts to see it, I agree. And I lament this, too. But I think the real challenge is figuring out, not how to stand in opposition to people where they are, but how to stand alongside them. Can we put aside our laments in order that we can accompany the glitterati and affirm that Good part of Advent within them? This good part—the hunger for Christ, the impulse to generosity, the call to kindness and humility—is real. We as spiritual leaders can help the spiritually hungry to identify and name the anticipation they feel in new ways. We can choose to affirm all the good that they are expressing, and tune our sacred rituals to affirm that Good, even as we teach to deepen it.

A few Christmas carols and the opportunity to enter and share the people’s joy is well, well worth it. A whole bucketful of Christmas carols are worth it! So many Christmas carols that I am good and sick of them by Dec 26th are absolutely authentically worth it if we recognize in the singing the real opportunity to tell the story that Christ is coming—if God is with us, who can be against us! Shaking our heads and fingers at the carolers will only drive a wedge between Christmas and the Church.

This wedge is real. When I see things such as the zombie nativity I cringe. Comedic characters are obsessive characters. The church becomes a comedic character and an object of ridicule when it obsessively persists in outdated ritual-making, then clucks its tongue at the celebrations of others. Pop culture at its heart seeks revitalized conversation. Can we have that conversation? Can we engage profane or religious conversations as they actually exist?

So. We can tie our churches to an archaic calendar or we can live into the missional moment. There is good news here. If Advent is a made-up calendrical event, it can be reformed and renewed. If we but choose to look, we will see that hope and anticipation are very much alive in our time and a key character still in the lead up to Christmas. If we choose, we can let go of our church-righteousness, and instead witness to and teach foundationally and meaningfully what is essentially important—that Christ is coming! Praise be to God!

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