Advent is my favourite season of the church year.
In fact, I weirdly start longing for Advent sometime in September most years. I get tired of the long season of Green or Ordinary Time. Usually by Thanksgiving (celebrated the 2nd Sunday of October in Canada), I am ready for anything but more parables from the Gospels. I ready to see anything but same-old, same-old green paraments hanging from the chancel furnishings. I am ready for the deep, rich blues of advent to begin. Don’t tell anyone, but by that time of year, I sometimes even long for snow!
As a kid, Advent always bore this mysterious quality for me. The church I grew up in used to hang this huge advent wreath from the 50ft. sanctuary ceiling – like seriously, it was the size of a small kitchen table. And this elderly usher would lower it down using a pulley system during the children’s message so that we could light the appropriate number of candles. The shaky old usher often looked like he was about to let the whole thing go and the wreath would come crashing down on our heads. That was part of the fun for sure.
Yet, I also remember the little seen blue stole that the pastor wore for just a few weeks. I remember the haunting verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that we would sing in anticipation of Messiah. I remember hearing the stories of that interesting figure “John the Baptist” and the camel’s hair clothes he wore, and the locusts or giant grass hoppers he ate. I remember the wild sermons he preached, and how the drama of his words seemed to echo in the sanctuary:
Prepare the way of the Lord
Make his paths straight
But the exciting images of Advent lessons didn’t end there. The best story of Advent – and one of the best of the whole year – was the story of the Angel coming to Mary. I loved hearing those fist words the angel speaks, I could imagine a young girl just going about her business in her room and suddenly somthing, someone beyond worlds appeared to her:
Do not be afraid
Of course! Of course, the Angel would say that! Because meeting an angel would be the coolest and most terrifying thing ever!
Advent has the best stories, and they have stuck with me since being a kid. These days as a pastor, I start getting excited weeks ahead of when I have to preach them. I start letting those words of John, those words of the Angel and words of Mary percolate in my mind so that I am ready to preach them when the time comes.
Increasingly the past few years, Christmas has been creeping into Advent. Sure there have always been Christmas parties during advent, and choir/band/orchestra christmas concerts, and Christmas displays in malls. But Christmas seems to more ubiquitous than ever and before Advent even starts.
And maybe I didn’t notice it as much as kid, but it feels like the whole world is joining in the generic Christmas celebration. Almost everyone celebrates Christmas these days, whereas Christmas used to be a mostly churchy thing to do… or at least not a very big deal to non-religious folk.
And who am I to judge? If the secular world needs a cultural celebration to fend off the darkness of winter, to spread joy and cheer, to make an excuse to give and receive gifts, than great! Christians appropriated Christmas from pagan winter solstice traditions, why can’t the secular world borrow Christianity’s holy day in order turn our dark time of year into a celebratory time?
It is even interesting to watch the secular world work out how the commercial and cultural celebration works for it and I am fine with that. This year there was a movement in Canada to keep stores from putting out the Christmas displays until after Remembrance Day (Nov. 11th). Many stores start their Christmas campaign November 1st, right after the halloween campaign has been put to bed with a candy hangover.
Despite my willingness to share Christmas, the people I don’t get are the Christians who start fighting this fictitious “War on Christmas” around November 1st or 12th. Even government officials are capitalizing on this unfounded fear that the phrases “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” are going to take the Christ out of Christmas. Or that Xmas isn’t a long held Christian short hand. I think we are afraid of losing something and so we hold on more tightly.
The idea that Christians are in any way persecuted in Canada is about as absurd as saying Canadians don’t care about Hockey. But I will leave the persecution bit for another post.
What bothers me about the War on Christmas is that its real opponent seems to be Advent.
Christians seem to forget that Advent even exists. Maybe instead of being offended by Happy Holidays, we should be correcting Merry Christmas with Happy Advent.
Because here is the thing: Christmas needs Advent.
We need Advent.
Christmas without Advent is like giving birth without pregnancy. It is like opening a novel in the middle of the story. It is like skipping the first half of every movie you watch.
It is like Easter without Good Friday, or the story of the Fall in Genesis without the story of Creation and paradise, or the story of the Israelites coming to the promise land without the story of leaving Egypt.
So often we want to make Christmas about idyllic manger scenes with little drummer boys, sheep and donkeys, angels and shepherds, when Christmas is about un-wed mothers, the oppression of Empire, and the slaughter of children.
I think we want to imagine Christmas an unblemished perfect little story, because we are afraid of the darkness.
Advent reminds us Christmas is not about nostalgia and sentimentalism. It isn’t just singing Silent Night while holding a candle on Christmas Eve.
We need Advent because it tells us the whole story. It tells us the deeper story. John the Baptist, the Angel and Mary are not just cool characters in rich narrative. They are powerful symbols and reminders that we are still Advent people.
Advent reminds us that Christmas – that the birth of Messiah – is for a world still waiting in darkness, still waiting for justice, still waiting for healing. Advent tell us that Messiah isn’t just a cute baby born in a barn to poor parents. Advents tells us that Messiah is God’s answer to human darkness. God’s light sent to people living under the thumb of the Roman Empire, people living under the oppression of white privilege in Ferguson and Staten Island, people living in the systemic poverty imposed on the Indigenous people of Canada, women living under the constant threat of sexism, misogyny and sexual violence, people who practice a religion different than the empire’s being forced to celebrate holy-days that the White Christian Empire accuses them of taking away.
The symbols of Advent still draw me in just like they did as a kid. Even though I am the one putting on the blue stole, and reading the words of John the Baptist, the Angel and Mary. And even when I get crochety because Christmas music is playing in the malls in the middle of November and my Facebook feed is full of people worried that Christmas might lose Christ because someone wished them Happy Holidays, Advent reels me in.
Because I need Advent too.
I need Advent and its promise of a new world, its hope given to a world that feels hopeless too often and because of those four little lights that push away the darkness in order to make room – to make room for Messiah.
Messiah who is already here, but still on the way.
So do not be afraid.