Reflections on this Sunday’s message, “Christmas Cold Turkey” by Ellen
Today (Sunday, December 9, 2012) was epiphany-like for me. Pastor Ray discussed the idea that we need a purification to purge the Christmas Virus from our systems and make room for that which is Holy about this time of year. At some point, he said, we need “Less Christmas and More Advent.”
When he first said this, I was profoundly convicted and totally lost. This is the time of year I feel most lost in both my Christ-like witness and my practice of spiritual disciplines. Pastor’s statement made clear to me that I have no idea what actually constitutes the difference between Christmas and Advent. These things have been for me, and I suspect others, totally conflated. Advent and Christmas have been intertwined my whole life – we celebrated Advent as part of the liturgical calendar in the church, but we practiced Christmas and Advent together in the home and in the society as though they were the same thing (Today my husband mentioned he saw a McDonald’s commercial that said the McRib was back “for advent.” WTF?!). However, given that Christmas has become totally co-opted and in many ways empty for me, I feel an urgency now to define Advent and by defining it, to reclaim it. As I started thinking about this and talking about it with my husband (an indefinable) and a friend (a Catholic), I started to really think this question through: How is advent different from Christmas? This is what I discerned from that conversation:
Christmas is a social norm. It is defined by a variety of practices that have no spiritual meaning, but have a social and cultural meaning. Its perpetuation is bound up in nostalgia – how we remember a special time (often as children), which we seek to recreate. Christmas is a season that builds to a single day that commemorates the birth of an important man. It is marked by ritual – songs, movies, practices, decorations, orientations and most recently consumption. It requires nothing of you after Christmas Day.
Advent is a spiritual practice. It is defined by a variety of acts that have significant spiritual meaning, but would mean little socially and culturally. It is living – it is not rooted in an experience of the past, but is dynamic, meaning something new each year, bringing new revelation. Advent builds for 345 days of the year of mission, not moment. It is marked by a sense of anticipation of God with us – that these days are for recognition and preparation of that “being with” – which requires a set of activities (prayer, meditation, fast, study). It requires much of you after Christmas Day, because Advent celebrates that God entered through a man who worked to transform it and prepares us for the hard work required of those of us who follow Christ. That preparation is about sustenance – connecting with God and understanding the work for which we must prepare.
So, what does that mean?
It means that Advent is ALL ABOUT the wilderness (where God meets people throughout the scripture). It is about hearing God in those 20 some days. It’s about the spiritual practices like prayer, study, meditation and fasting that prepare us for the work that must be undertaken actively and outside the church for the other 345 odd days. It is Sabbath!
So, if it’s all about the wilderness, how does that look?
I would argue that Advent is the time that those who follow Christ withdraw from the world and worldly practice to be in some version of the wilderness – we don’t shop, we don’t participate in distracting rituals, we don’t feed cultural norms. We prepare – intentionally, deliberately, silently, and in some version of isolation.
Prepare for what?
I would argue for the Kingdom work we are called to do the other 345 days a year. Those days, we are people of the fruits of the spirit, people of engagement, people of gift and generosity, and people of justice. We engage all other days of the year in the work that Jesus model for us: The work that earned him his cross.
Advent, like Lent, is active and actively anticipates something! I would argue it prepares us to be joyful (because of the hope we have because of the gift God gave us) and impactful (because of what it means to be followers of Christ).
So, I am done with Christmas. it’s going to be hard. But in order to do Advent, I have to let it go, I think. It’s a distraction. It requires action and effort from me that takes away from the discipline of Advent. And I think that is how Christians can witness when “the most wonderful time of the year” starts November 1st, elicits both anxiety, anger, emptiness, includes the running of the bulls at “big box” stores each year and leads to no sustained good will, good news or good intentions among (wo)men after December 26th. For Christians, we strive that all times of the year should be the “most wonderful time of the year” and Advent is the time we take to focus, learn, grow and prepare for our part in making it that way (the Kingdom way).