“Most of us habitually miss it every year at Christmas. Our story is consumption and consumerism, and we’re obsessed with the climax. We worship less. We spend more. We give less. We struggle more.”
-from Advent Conspiracy by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder
I have great childhood memories of Christmas. It’s funny though, I remember only a few specific gifts. What I do remember is the excitement and anticipation. I remember how the time was special. We had special meals with extended family. We opened gifts together. I remember listening to Christmas music on the radio. Somewhere along the line of growing up, Christmas became a really crazy and busy time. I found it was too full of time commitments and there was not enough space to really contemplate anything, let alone the miracle and mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. And speaking of Christ, I also began to realize that the season ought to be shaped more by Jesus than by buying and receiving gifts, but that wasn’t true in my life. Was Christmas supposed to be a perpetual chasing of a nostalgic childhood joy while simultaneously fending off the shame of not fully recognizing the arrival of the Christ child? It’s exhausting.
These sorts of issues are not new to our time. In Stephen Nissenbaum’s wonderfully informative book, “The Battle for Christmas,” he tells of a short story written with the theme of the “profusion of presents bought and sold during the holiday season – and the trouble many comfortably off Americans had in finding something meaningful to give their loved ones at Christmas.” (p.133) The short story was written in 1850, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The struggle to find the *real* meaning of Christmas seems to be perennial, and not unique to our experience. What are we to do?
It is this quest for something different, something with deeper meaning and joy that has brought me to cherish the church’s season of Advent. I know it may seem counterintuitive to celebrate Christmas better by focusing on another season instead. Furthermore, it may seem strange to focus on Advent, when part of what that implies is holding off on our own celebration of “Christmas.” But to be honest with you, I get desperate sometimes in my spiritual life, and simply doing more of what I was already doing did not work. Whereas a consumer driven December Christmas season compels me to consume and do more and more. Advent tells me to hold back. Advent is a time to fast and pray. Advent is not about opening gifts, it’s about waiting. Advent is anticipation, not a month-long gluttonous consummation. Advent is preparation for the real celebration. In many ways, Advent is extremely counter-cultural. To be honest, I find that appealing.
The first week of Advent this year is November 27. It will be here before we know it. Therefore, I am writing to encourage you to be intentional about how you observe Advent. Will Advent simply be a word you hear in church during December “Christmas” season? Or, will you observe Advent this year in preparation for the Feast of Christmas?
Advent provides all of us an opportunity to be shaped more by Christ within us, than the world around us.