A couple of weeks ago a really bizarre controversy played out in America, wherein people freaked out about a Starbucks cup. While a refugee crisis heated up in Europe and the Middle East. And while thousands of college students took to the public square protesting racial inequality. But you do you, American Christianity.
This chatter means that we’ve reached an important moment in the church calendar: the annual war on Christmas is well underway. Now, I count myself among the many reasonable Christians who believe that this alleged war is total bullshit. Even so, there does seem to be something wrong about how our culture recognizes this season. Would I go so far as to say that we’re at war? That seems like quite a stretch. But for the sake of drama, let’s say that we are. It’s not a war on Christmas though – it’s a war on Advent.
The basis for my argument is simple. Distracted by the war on Christmas, or the cheerful festivities, or the commercialism, or any combination of the above, we – the church – have put Advent on the back burner. Some of us own a special wreath or light some purple candles, but other than these symbolic gestures, our focus this time of year is on Christmas. And while Christmas is coming, it’s not here yet.
Since at least the fifth century, the church has set aside a season of time (about four weeks) to reflect upon Christ’s first coming and to await his second. Advent leads up to and culminates with Christmas, and these two seasons are quite distinct. Christmas is the joyous celebration of the Word made flesh, when God became human to begin to reclaim the world. Christmas is glorious light, bursting through the darkness – Advent is a flicker, when we anticipate Christ’s arrival, and ready ourselves for it. In some ways, I’ve found Advent to be slightly somber or mysterious: just as the ancient Israelites awaited the Messiah, we too await the resurrection and restoration in God’s Kingdom. In a world that is obviously and deeply broken, we sometimes wait quite anxiously.
All of this is a far cry from the spectacular light show at Macy’s or the cozy nostalgia of A Christmas Story. As wonderful as those things – and the joy of Christmas that comes with them – are, it’s important for Christians to delay them just a bit longer than everyone else. Or, to enjoy them alongside a season of careful waiting.
I’ve been thinking through what it would look like to put Advent into action, and to make it a part of my rhythm for these next few weeks. A few practices come to mind, and I invite you to join me in trying to uphold them.
Stop saying “Merry Christmas”
This is only sort of a joke. Just like we wouldn’t say “Happy Easter” during Lent, theoretically, it’s a little strange to wish people a “Merry Christmas” during Advent. Like Easter, Christmas is its own wonderful season that we’ll joyfully celebrate in due time. For now, sticking with “Happy Holidays” is a subtle linguistic reminder to ourselves and others that we’re still waiting for that time to come.
Living with Less
In American culture, Christmas is often about stuff. It’s a season of giving, where we surprise loved ones with things we think they’d enjoy. It’s also a season of gratitude, where many of us focus on the things we already have and express sincere thanks. The emphasis is placed on what we’ll give, what we have, and what we soon will have. And that’s totally fine. But what if we waited until Christmas to be astounded by the great abundance that many of us experience? What if, during Advent, we made efforts to live with a little less? For example, it’s become a fairly common practice for people to take this time to sacrifice time and resources to serve those in need. Giving up a Saturday to prepare food for the homeless, or earmarking part of a paycheck to buy presents for kids whose own parents can’t afford to are both tangible reminders of not only the great need that exists in this world, but also what it feels like to live with a less.
A lot of retailers make a big push this time of year to get people to go online for all of their gift-giving needs, with the offer of free and fast shipping. All it takes is a credit card and a few hours – no need to sit in traffic, wait in line, or even put on pants. It’s painless, and nearly instantaneous. This instant gratification sure is nice, but it’s also basically the opposite of what Advent is all about. Regardless of how you do your holiday shopping, I invite you this season to seek out ways to simply…wait. Find something worth looking forward to, and instead of going after it right away, intentionally take time to slowly anticipate it.
Prayer and Fasting
In the scriptures, we see people anxiously await the promised Christ through song, prophecy, and prayer. This dialogue with the Lord varies in nature, but it reflects a closeness with God that is ultimately fulfilled in the conception and birth of Jesus. What better time than Advent to maintain this conversation, as we await his coming again? Each year my church puts together a little book of prayer, scripture, and reflection to guide us through this season – you’re welcome to download a free copy here. More radically, it’s actually (historically) not uncommon for people to fast from things like meat, dairy, oil, and wine during Advent. This ancient practice is quite contrary to the abundance and celebration that takes place within our society during this season. But joyfully abstaining from such common luxuries prepares both our bodies and minds for the Christmas feast. In a time of great abundance, choosing to go without can be both challenging and profound. In a world where instant gratification is the expected norm, intentionally waiting to indulge can re-shape our hearts in amazing ways.