“Wait,” you say; “Didn’t you mean ‘Keep Christ in Christmas?’”
Well, no, I didn’t mean that. As we’ve all suspected and feared, there hasn’t been a whole lot of Christ in the American cultural observance of Christmas for quite some time. So, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to keep trying to remind the most consumption-driven society in history that there’s more to this holiday than piling up swag come December 25? Or are we going to remember that the church has always exerted the greatest influence on the culture around it when it has refused to let the culture dictate the terms of engagement? Perhaps we should give up trying to reform or spiritualize the orgy of materialism that runs from Black Friday to Christmas Day. Perhaps we should just let the pagans have that holiday (as Rodney Clapp suggests in his excellent book Border Crossings), and offer instead a genuine alternative, one that embodies and celebrates gospel values, rather than consumerist ones. Perhaps, so there’s no misunderstanding, we should call this season something other than “Christmas.”
“Wait,” you say again; “You’re talking about Advent, aren’t you?” Why, yes I am.
Think about it this way: the Christian Feast of the Incarnation celebrates the gift of God’s own self in Jesus Christ. It is the most astounding, grace-filled gift ever given (small wonder that the powers of this world have worked so hard to distract us from it). As an act of grace, the Incarnation takes place entirely at God’s initiative; it is something that God does pro nobis, for us.
In Advent we respond to this gift. In Advent we show the world what lives shaped by something other than the pursuit of more and more stuff look like. Advent offers us the opportunity to bear witness to Jesus Christ in ways that the Great Pagan Festival of Christmas will never do. Consider how many people feel alienated by that pagan festival, how many spend the holiday season looking for genuine meaning, purpose, and connection. To what are those folks going to be drawn: Angry fretting about the chain store signs saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? Or lives shaped by a quiet yet urgent hope, wonder, and love?
If you’re a pastor looking for ways to help folks claim Advent as a Christian alternative to the pagan celebration of Christmas, Scripture provides, as always, a great place to start. Here are four portraits from the Bible of the “Advent-driven life.” The virtues and graces that these characters from Scripture display can be ours as well, if we open ourselves to the Spirit’s movement during this season of memory and expectation.
1. Waiting for God: Simeon and Anna
When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple shortly after his birth, they met there two people–Simeon and Anna–who had been waiting for the Messiah to show up. The pair, both of whom were no longer spring chickens (the text says this explicitly of Anna, and implies it of Simeon), rejoiced greatly that God had rewarded their patient expectation by allowing them to see this promised Son of David.
Any six-year-old will tell you that the weeks before Christmas are all about waiting. But the trouble with waiting for Christmas is that the thing we’re waiting for turns out not to be worth the wait, as another Christmas comes and goes and all our hopes for the “best Christmas ever” remain unrealized. Come to think of it, life itself can become a series of unfulfilled Christmases, as we nurture the (false) hope that we will somehow find peace and fulfillment if we can just get the job, or the spouse, or the kids, or the house we’ve always dreamed of. Simeon and Anna tell us that waiting only has meaning if we’re waiting for the right thing.
2. Seeking God: The Magi
The Magi show us that equal to the grace of waiting is that of seeking. Having seen the star that marked the Promised One’s birth, it wasn’t enough for them to hear news of this event some time in the future. They mounted up and followed that star to Jesus by way of Jerusalem and that snake, Herod. Using intel they gathered from Herod’s court they found the infant king, worshiped him, and then slipped out the back door lest Herod silence them as he was planning to do to Jesus.
Our search for God doesn’t have to take us across the wilderness or through the portals of power. In fact, we don’t have to go anywhere. All we have to do is genuinely open ourselves to God’s presence in our lives, and follow the Spirit’s leading. As saints and mystics through the ages have reminded us, in the end the God we find is the one who has always sought and is ever finding us.
3. Wonder at God: The Shepherds
In Luke 2 the shepherds react in three ways to the angelic announcement of the baby king: first, they are struck down by terror; next, they are overcome with curiosity; and finally they are carried off by wonder and praise. Unlike Anna, Simeon, and the magi, they weren’t looking to find God that night; their biggest priorities were staying warm and not losing any sheep. And yet before the night was over they had stood in the presence of the Incarnate One.
Why do we want to be around small children at Christmas time? Because we think the season is supposed to magical, and we believe that their short span of years best qualifies them to catch a whiff of that magic. But for us that’s going to be a manufactured and second-hand experience. The encounter with God during Advent is more than this; it’s the awe and joy of creatures confronted, as were the shepherds, by the mystery of their Creator.
4. Rejoicing in God’s Justice: Mary
That mystery is so far beyond our experience and comprehension that preachers and theologians have been trying to express in words what it means ever since. But have you noticed that the first, and best, of these attempts to figure out what the Incarnation means comes from Mary herself? Right there in Luke 1, after the angel has told her what’s going to happen and Mary has been to chat with her cousin Elizabeth about it, Mary breaks out into the Magnificat, that powerful account of her gratitude to God for what God has chosen to do through her. And at the heart of that song is Mary’s insistence that the coming of the Messiah is about justice, about God’s decision to exalt the humble and cast down the proud.
Now there’s something you don’t hear much about in the Christmas songs at the mall, do you? Why is that? Because while the pagan celebration of Christmas is about me, Advent is about others. Specifically, it’s about the least and the lost, those among whom Jesus was himself born, and to whom his ministry was so often directed. Advent allows us to see our connection to God’s hurting world, and know that God is at work in Jesus to heal that hurt.