According to St. Benedict of Nursia the Christian life should be a continuous Lent. And according to Sts. Wal-Mart, Target, and Starbucks the fall should be a continuous Christmas.
Holiday decorations have gone up earlier this year in stores and on city lampposts. Throughout much of October and all of November, television commercials become mostly about buying things for the holidays. There was a time when few people had the audacity to put up decorations before the Thanksgiving weekend; no one wanted it to be swallowed up by Christmas. But now November 1 seems to be the new beginning to the Christmas season, though this is being pushed further back each year.
Christians are not exempt from this pre-mature Christmas-ization either. Many of us turn on the Amy Grant Christmas CD well before Thanksgiving hits to prepare us for the celebration. We begin scouting gifts and planning parties. I am no Scrooge (though I am no Buddy the Elf either). I enjoy the Christmas season because it means rest and relaxation, time with my family and cool weather, which gives me an excuse to light the fireplace while reading a good book. But I wonder what a two-month (or more) Christmas season is doing to our souls.
Commercialization loves a void, and in this case the Christmas season has expanded in the lives of Christians in part because there has been nothing to prevent it from doing so. But God has given the church her own season of preparation, a unique time when Christians orient themselves toward the holiday: Advent. Advent is much more than a wreath with candles. It is the beginning of the church year and, most importantly, it is the four weeks before Christmas that we dedicate to meditating on the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. These four weeks allow us, as God’s people, the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus Christ, celebrated on Christmas Day. Just as the Israelites were told to wait upon the Lord (Is. 30:31), so we too wait upon the Lord. Though there is not a particular significance to the fact that Advent is approximately four weeks long (that is more the result of historical happenstance), it does give the church the space to reflect on two important aspects of Advent, emphasized in the traditional lectionary readings for the season. The first part of Advent (up to the third Sunday of Advent) has readings from the prophet Isaiah, who foretells the coming of the Messiah. The eight days prior to Christmas (including the fourth Sunday of Advent) shift to readings from the Gospels that focus on the infancy narratives of Jesus Christ. Expectation and arrival; promise and fulfillment pervade the weeks of Advent.
But it is not enough to practice Advent (e.g., Advent wreaths, Lessons and Carols, etc.). We need to ground Advent theologically in the greater narrative of salvation history. Repeatedly throughout the biblical narrative God’s people are admonished to remember. In the Old Testament this often manifested itself in the Israelite’s erecting monuments as reminders of God’s faithfulness (e.g., Joshua 4) and reciting psalms that reminded living Israelites of God’s past faithfulness (e.g., Psalm 78). In the New Testament the apostle Paul, for example, admonishes his readers to remember who they used to be verses who they are now (e.g., Ephesians 2:11-13). We should also, in imitation of these Old and New Testament examples, be a people who remember the works of the Lord and Advent, in a unique way, gives us this opportunity. Advent makes sacred, if you will, a period of time in preparation for Christmas in which we can remember – remember the promised coming of the Messiah, remember the way in which the Messiah entered into the world, taking on human form. Though Advent is not just about remembering it is certainly an intentional season to remember. Specifically, Advent is a distinctly Christological season – a time to focus on the first coming of Jesus Christ in the incarnation, to prepare for his coming gain in great glory, and an invitation to see the ways in which Jesus Christ comes into our lives every day.
Historically, Christians have been aware of this tension. Most pastors will preach at least one sermon against the commercialization of the Christmas season in the weeks leading up to it. But recent attempts to recover Advent are not solving the problem. Consider the increasingly popular “Advent Conspiracy.” In their own words, “Advent Conspiracy is a movement designed to help us all slow down and experience a Christmas worth remembering.” Though there is certainly a presence of Christ in their materials, this “conspiracy” seems more about making the holidays more stress-free and more religious, even if still not fully Christological. The meaning of Advent stops at worshipping fully, spending less, giving more, and loving all; but historically and biblically Advent is about remembering and expecting. And the real irony of the “Advent Conspiracy” is that you can buy their books and DVDs. Because it absolutely makes sense to spend money to make Advent and Christmas less commercial! We don’t need Band-Aids like this when we’re hemorrhaging. Rather, we need to return the Christ-focused nature of Advent.
For most people, two months of reflecting on the first and second comings of Jesus Christ won’t – to use a pun – hold a candle to peppermint lattes, twinkle lights, and one more rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” But when the Bible speaks of an Advent season, it focuses on the significance of the coming of the Christ. For example:
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thess. 3:11-13); and
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! (2 Peter 3:10-12).
The church does not need to observe the cultural “Christmas season” (which, liturgically speaking, is actually the twelve days after Christmas). During the Christological Advent season, the church’s focus turns away from our shopping or our role in saving the world toward our Savior. So many of us are easily drawn in by the cultural trappings of Christmas (which are not all bad) that by observing Advent we are giving ourselves a reason to stay focused on something bigger than holiday shopping and decorations, something better than sales and Santa Claus. Most of us are busy people with competing claims on our time, energy, hearts and focus. Therefore, we often adopt ways to help us overcome these tensions. We buy smart phones to help us manage time and to talk to folks while we drive, proverbially killing two birds with one stone. We schedule date nights with our spouses or family days so that we do not neglect our loved ones. We say no to good things so that we can do other good things. Life is oftentimes a constant push and pull between competing goods (and sometimes lesser goods) and obligations. Is it any different in our spiritual lives? Is it not wise to observe Lent so that Christmas is not reduced to one day on the calendar? If Starbucks and Wal-Mart is pulling us one way isn’t it sensible to have something pulling us back towards a more balanced Christmas observance? By meditating intentionally on the first and second comings of Christ, we would not be able to engage in the same way with the commercial Advent. Wouldn’t a reflection on the poverty of the incarnation (both the physical poverty of Mary and Joseph and the impoverished nature of the Son of God as a vulnerable infant) keep us from spending so freely? Wouldn’t an eager expectation for the return of Christ keep us from storing up treasures on earth? Wouldn’t we be less inclined to put our money towards stuff that is for me if we followed God’s advice to think of and serve others more highly than ourselves, just as Jesus came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many?
I am not suggesting that Advent be so severely penitential that it displaces the goods of the holiday season (such as family and friends). But by living within Scripture’s teaching about Advent, natural goods will come to dominate our Advent and Christmas in such a way that the commercial Advent fades into the distance. What that looks like will depend on each individual person, but certainly the starting point is a robust recovery of Advent as Christological.
Yesterday was the First Sunday of Advent. It is the church’s opportunity to focus on the significance of the coming of the Son of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Why not spend some time meditating on the gift of the Christ child as the Savior of all humankind? Why not set aside our Christmas-themed drinks and music and instead focus on the love of God for all people and the miracle of the incarnation? It’s a trite saying, but nonetheless true: we need to “put the ‘Christ’ back into Christmas.” But to properly do that, we should begin by putting him in Advent, too. There are many ways to do this but two seem particularly simple. First, purchase a traditional advent wreath and use it each day to mark the days of Lent. Not one of those elaborate countdown to Christmas calendars with chocolate goodies behind little doors but a simple wreath with four purple (or blue) and one white candle. Purchase or download a family Advent guide (there are some good ones online) that guides you through the weeks of Advent. Make the lighting of the Advent candle a special event each night, perhaps before dinner or as part of family devotions. Most importantly, make this about Christ! Use the scriptural narratives to mark these weeks as Christological. Second, incorporate intentional Advent church activities into the Christmas season schedule. Ideally, every local church should observe Advent, and observe it in a robust manner. Too much of evangelical church activity already takes place away from one’s local parish. If your local church does not observe Advent encourage the pastors to start doing so. Ask them to pause the current sermon series on Leviticus to preach intentionally on the Christological passages and promises in Scripture. Why not attend a local Lessons and Carols, an opportunity to hear great Christ-mas music set in its original context – the church. Why not encourage your church to do their own Lessons and Carols? Gather members of your church together for discussions about the first and second comings of Christ and its implications in the life of the church and the world.
Let us celebrate Christmas the way it was meant to be celebrated: in thoughtful remembrance of Jesus’ first coming as a babe in Bethlehem and in eager expectation of his coming again to judge the living and the dead, where his kingdom will have no end.