Secular Christmas, religious Christmas, Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, Christmas eggnog, Christmas candles, Christmas lights.
I am the quintessential consumer of Christmas crap that every marketer dreams of and every minimalist fears.
Because at Christmas it should be classy…but the definition of classy has permeable boundaries.
And I listen to Christmas music early in the season. Mostly because I think it reminds me of Christmases when I was a kid, which were always full of magic and mystery and all sorts of greatness.
And perennial calls for stopping “wars on Christmas” or yelling for “no Christmas music until Advent is over” is all a bunch of nonsense from people who love to control things and who have an inordinate amount of time to obsess over nothingness.
But one thing is true: Christmas is for children. And I’m not just talking about secular Christmas with the fat elf and the flying Rangifer tarandus.
Religious Christmas is for children, too, in many ways. You may not want to hear that, but it’s true. The myths that have grown themselves around the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke (often conflated awkwardly with the first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew) have created a narrative that theologically resonates, but realistically falls flat.
Angels, traveling Magi, virgin births…it’s all hard to swallow as reality, even for the faithful. It’s a story for children’s books.
And I’d advocate that you need not swallow it all to be Christian. In fact, it sounds like so much myth mostly because it was written to evoke that kind of thought in the reader and that kind of hope in the reader’s heart. You, too, are supposed to see that something unusual, epic, of mythical proportions is taking place in the person of Jesus.
Yes, you too.
But we’ve taken the mythical narrative and have tried to pass it off as history, and it all makes for people creating wars on Christmas (real and imaginary), and people rejecting theological truths because they don’t line-up with historical reality, and…
Well, here we are.
But see, this is the thing: the mythical nature of Christmastide is, and should be, balanced by the stark reality of Advent.
If only we could really re-claim Advent.
And I’m not talking about the Advent calendar with nice little doors that have chocolate inside until you get to Christmas eve.
That’s not real Advent. That’s commercial Advent.
And I’m not talking about just banning Christmas hymns or music in deference to Advent music. That’s like only focusing on one tire on a car, when the whole thing is broken. It won’t do what you want it to.
No, we need to reclaim the totality of Advent because Advent is for adults.
Advent is for adults who wait for births, or for diagnoses, or for the death of a loved one, or for a new job, or for any job, or for that pink slip they know is coming, or for relief from pain, or for visitors to arrive and cheer up a lonely existence, or…
Or anything that we wait for that causes anxiety.
Because Advent is all about receiving the uncomfortable news that God is on the scene, is going to show up, is going to shake up your world in some way. And that news when coupled with the “Fear not!” of the angel message is what balances out this season.
Your life is going to be shaken. But fear not!
Jesus, we need to hear that again. And I mean that phrase in every way it can be taken.
Because all the ridiculous anxiety around this time of year just points to the unrest that we have, the imbalance that we feel, when we focus so closely on one part of a larger issue.
The church needs to reclaim Advent because society, humanity, lives in Advent quite a bit of the time. It’s one of the shortest seasons in the church year, but one of the longest seasons of our lives: the season of waiting.
And we need to practice waiting well. Advent can do that, for the secular and the religious alike.
And I’m a reluctant Christian at times because most of the Christian world just skips right over it in deference to “defending Christmas” or focusing on music rather than meaning, or just abandoning it all together because, who cares?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself many times while waiting as both ends of the wick burn, as patience runs thin, as the meagerness of my existence comes colliding with the immensity of the existing world and I feel like a measly piece of nothingness against it all.
And I don’t have time for nothingness.
Advent’s answer to that question is, “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord; be strong take heart.”
I don’t like answers. I like questions. But when all I have are questions, Advent’s response is balm for a weary soul.
Tim: your point about Christmas, and especially about the myths of Luke and Matthew are precisely why the old wisdom of the lectionary at Christmas is important to also reclaim. Read the Luke narratives on Christmas eve, but on Christmas Day (and do not neglect to worship on Christmas Day) read and proclaim the prologue from John’s gospel, which is not about shepherds, angels, or wise ones, but about light coming into the world and about our reluctance to see the light. And, I think you are so very right about your invitation to quit beating each other up about what music we sing or listen to: your metaphor of the car tire is brilliant! Please keep writing and preaching!
Right on! Thanks for putting in words and perspective what I have been feeling for a long time.
I like this idea, but am curious as to ideas of how to put this into practice. As a young adult who never experienced or understood Advent (aside from the chocolate candies!), it would be nice to have some perspective as to what Advent was & how it could be revitalized. Thank you in advance for any insight you are able to provide!
A great question. And challenging. Advent is a season marked by spiritual practices akin to spiritual housewarming (as opposed to Lent, which is more like a housecleaning).
It’s a communal practice of lighting candles, singing simple songs, reading and speaking about hope in the context of impatience and anxiety, and welcoming strangers into your presence much like you would a traveler stopping by your home late into the night who needed help.
I think the most important piece of that is the communal aspect. Advent is where we practice waiting in faith together by candle light so that we build that spiritual muscle enough so that it does it on its own when needed.
Private devotions, and candle lighting at home will also mark the season. Intentional quiet not for repentance, but for reflection will also help. It’s not stark by any means, but intentionally simple and cozy and hopeful in the darkest days of the year.
I hope that helps some, Amber!
What comes to mind in reading Amber’s comment and Tim’s reply is the practice of walking a labyrinth. It is used by many Christians, but is not a specifically Christian practice. Anyway, the idea is that you will reach the destination, but at times you are moving away from the destination, and then tantilizingly near, and then away again. Kind of like life.
Tim, I love this post. Thanks. This morning a friend asked me for “good religion/spirituality blog recommendations” and I thought of yours right away, and THEN read this post and smiled because you proved me right. A high-five to you, sir.
And to you, Andrew. Blessings this Advent!
In a world of instant gratification, waiting might be one of the most powerful counter-cultural things we can do.
But can I keep my Star Wars Advent Calendar?
Yes. That is approved. Especially if the chocolates are little Yodas…
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