It is impossible for me to believe that a new church year is almost upon us. Advent is right around the corner.
Advent has long been my favorite time of the church year, and remains so today. How I observe Advent, however, has changed somewhat. There was a time when I would bemoan the fact that stores decorated for Christmas too early, or that I had to hear Christmas music everywhere I went as early as November. For a period I even refused to exchange the Merry Christmas greeting until sundown on Christmas Eve, opting to confuse many a store clerk with a greeting of “Blessed Advent.” I was, by my own admission, an Advent nag. On at least two different occasions this earned me the annual “Coal Award” from the staff of my last parish. I am sure this was in part because I would scold the office manager about playing Christmas music in her office.
I noticed something last year, a turning in the way I thought about things. I didn’t complain when Home Depot broke out the fake trees and lawn decoration section in October. I didn’t complain when I heard Christmas music playing in stores before Thanksgiving. I even caught myself responding with “Merry Christmas” weeks prior to December 24th.
The lesson learned was this: Christmas, though undoubtedly about Christ and his birth, no longer belongs to the church. We no longer control and nor do we have the final word about how it is observed or celebrated in our culture. And this, my friends, is a good thing. If Christmas is about recognizing the gift of the Incarnation, and is observed by exchanging gifts, then we need to look at Christmas as our gift to the broader culture.
The gift we have given is not so much about shopping or twinkling lights or the ritual watching of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It is a gift of perpetual hope. It is the hope that even in the midst of a life that can be rocky and turbulent that a little respite in joy can be found. It is a time of the year when we can see things like love, peace, faithfulness, joy, goodness, gentleness, patience, kindness and self-control (ok, may NOT self-control) practiced among people of all faiths and no faith at all. If these things are truly the manifestation of (or fruits of) the Spirit among us, then even in these premature celebrations we see God’s spirit move.
What we do know is that this can be stressful. Dance recitals, school and church plays, parties, family dinners, and searching for gifts can suck the joy out of the season if we allow it. Not to mention those who find themselves estranged from family and friends, or those suffering from the poor economy. Here is the real opportunity for the church to step in and offer a place devoid of the noise and bustle of the season. The real trick, as I see it, is to offer this as a gift, not make it a requirement or some sort of religious law. We can create the space for silence and reflection. We forego Christmas carols during Advent inside the church. We can light candles, say prayers, hear the words of John the Baptist telling us to “stay awake” and to “repent” as we prepare our hearts and our minds for Christ’s Advent, not just for Christmas, but for the consummation of all time.We can serve those in need.
The key is to all of this is to stop being Advent Nags. Is there anything more annoying or joy-stealing than someone running around saying you are celebrating all wrong? It is little wonder the church can be so irrelevant to the world. Stop fussing about the things you can’t control in the way that our culture celebrates the holidays and embrace the fact that at some level God’s Spirit is somehow moving in all of this. We can embrace Advent and the anticipation it brings on our homes and churches. We can celebrate some of the great feast days that fill the season like St. Nicholas, Our Lady of Guadalupe (who would be a smart addition to our Lutheran calendar), or St. Mary’s Conception. We can offer all of these things as gifts as well, but let us do so in humility. Porphyrios the Elder once said, “If the grace of God comes, everyone and everything changes; however, in order for it to come, we must humble ourselves first.” May it be so for us this Advent.
Editor's Note: This commentary is courtesy of Robb Harrell, a Lutheran pastor in Florida, and is from his blog “Praying with Evagrius.” He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Florida, a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology at Emory.