Well the tree’s up. My family joined millions of others this Thanksgiving weekend by putting up our Christmas tree and decorations. Why do I sound less than thrilled? Look, it was too early when I started seeing Christmas commercials in September (September!) and hearing Christmas music in October. And then came all of the “Black Friday” ads in mid-November. Then the push to claim it Christmas season before the pumpkin pie had begun to settle over the still digesting turkey and stuffing. In my opinion it’s still too early. Christmas begins at well…Christmas. Today, November 28, was the beginning of Advent. I’m stubbornly sticking to it this year though I lost the Battle of the Family Tree today. I have wee ones so I make concessions.
For what follows I’m going to take some liberty and assume my reader is themselves a Christian, or has a historical sense of what the holiday traditionally represents. I take said liberty while typing at my laptop and sitting at my dining room table in the soft candlelit glow of the one item I did want to put up this weekend: our Advent wreath.
The word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus and means “coming.” As a liturgical or religious season, its traditional purpose is to anticipate the birth of the child Jesus at Christmas. Advent looks to the Incarnation of God on earth as man. But it’s not just looking back at Christmas past, but at three comings of Christ in our midst: his first coming at Bethlehem, his final coming at the end of time, and his continued coming into our hearts. The question before us is how can we, believing Christians who live in a secularized Western culture, best prepare for these three comings of Christ?
To be a believer in today’s world is tough. We see the manger from a distance, but somehow suspect it will be empty when we get there, if we ever manage to do so. We say we believe in Christ, but secretly wonder if he is nothing more than a figment of our imagination. We live in two cities, as Augustine would say—the City of God and the City of Man—and both are struggling within us and vying for our attention.
What does celebrating Advent mean in a world which teaches us, at one and the same time, to believe and not to believe? What does it mean to wait for God in a world that does not stop or wait for anything? What does it mean to expect God’s coming when society teaches us time and again not to expect anything from anyone—least of all from God? From Dennis Billy’s book There Is a Season: Living the Liturgical Year, here are a few examples of what it’s like for those of us who struggle to believe in an age of skepticism, uncertainty and doubt.
Nostalgic regret. Remember the great joy this time of year brought to us when we were little? Remember counting the days until Christmas with growing excitement? Today we look back and cherish that world and the warm memories it brought us. In our more honest moments we wish we could have it back. But we’ve changed. We have lost contact with the sense of awe and wonder that marked our younger years, and we do not know how to get it back. We’ve grown up, and some of us are unhappy with what we’ve become. We look back to the simpler days of our youth and wonder how we got to where we are now. We celebrate Advent out of a sense of nostalgia for the past joy the season brought us…to awaken the child within us.
Feverish preparation. It seems at this time of year there are so many things to do and so little time in which to do them. We get so busy getting ready for Christmas that we have no time left for reflecting on its true meaning. There always seems to be one more task to be done; one more present to wrap; one more store to visit. Advent is a time for preparing, but it is the way we prepare our hearts for Christ that really matters. By taking a contemplative attitude toward life and taking the time to ponder the mysteries of faith that have given rise to the celebration of Christmas. Otherwise we run the risk of turning this time of year into nothing more than an extended shopping season for a once religious but now very secular holiday.
Growing indifference. Perhaps you feel like you have experienced Advent many times before and do not see it as anything particularly special. You are turned off by the rampant consumerism that fills our society. Join the club. Many of us do not take Advent seriously because we feel most others do not. We have better things to do with our time. “Bah! Humbug!” as Scrooge would say. Life is hard and we are put on this earth to work, not to fritter our time away with silly ideas. Why get caught up in an annual celebration when the world will be no different afterwards? Why make such a fuss about it?
Lingering loneliness. Many people hate the holiday season and cannot wait until it’s over. Often it’s due to a sinking depression or state of melancholy that sets in out of sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction. They cannot wait for this season to pass for this reason. It’s a painful time for them. Old memories are stirred and rise to the surface. Old battles are fought; old wounds, reopened. The pain of the past makes the present unbearable. Such loneliness may or may not be a stranger to any of us. I myself have experienced this in years gone by. We need to remember that it can happen to any of us one day. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
As for me I experience all four of these every year. I am human after all. But they do not linger for long as I work hard each year to focus on the season of Advent. I light the candles on my Advent wreath with a prayer, one more each successive Sunday, until finally lighting the large white candle at Christmas. I attempt to spend some extra time each day considering the mystery of the Incarnation as well as my blessings, my hopes, my dreams, my prayers…and yes my fears and failings. I consciously slow down while the world is going a million miles an hour in a consumer-driven frenzy. I slow down to contemplate the seemingly insignificant manger-birth that took place over 2,000 years ago, overlooked by a world too busy to notice. We’re still in the dark…anticipating the light. THE light.
I’m not alone. Millions join me in this practice. This year, consider it for yourself. Whether a Christian or otherwise…slow down. I started this annual practice in earnest ten years ago. It has made all the difference for me as I am able to more fully appreciate and enjoy Christmas when it finally arrives.
Not in September. Not in October. Not on Black Friday.
On December 25.