Wait! An apology for Advent

December 17th, 2014

On November 1, the day after Halloween, I found myself in Target picking up a few household items. As I browsed the toothpaste aisle hunting for the best deal, I subconsciously began humming along to the background music. By the time I placed my toothpaste in the little red shopping basket, I realized that the smooth, rich voice of Michael Bublé had enticed me to quietly sing along with his jazzy rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ Suddenly, a feeling rushed over me. All the tacky red bows and cheap plastic wreaths hanging from the steel ceiling beams suddenly shined bright. I felt slightly ashamed and tried to deny it. But in my heart, I knew. I had received the ‘Christmas spirit.’

Trying to control the sudden urge to buy useless things, I made my way as quickly as possible through the ’10 Items or Less’ line. I rushed through the parking lot, and cranked my car. As I drove away from the Target, I shook my head. Partly at Target for their ridiculously early Christmas music and decorations. Partly at myself for being genuinely moved by Target’s slick money-making ploy. “Seriously?!,” I said to myself. “It’s not even Thanksgiving yet!”

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone express that sentiment: “They put out Christmas decorations earlier and earlier every year.” “Why do they start playing Christmas music in October?!” “They should wait until Thanksgiving to start the Christmas season!” Waiting until Thanksgiving to start celebrating Christmas makes a certain amount of sense in American society. Not economically, of course. But culturally, anyway. Thanksgiving is the first of “the holidays,” into which Christmas gets lumped. And the grand American liturgy that is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gives us decisive permission to begin the Christmas season when, at the very end of the procession, Santa Claus rolls by waving and ho-ho-ho-ing.

Those in the church often further associate Thanksgiving with the beginning of the Christmas season because Thanksgiving typically comes just before the first Sunday of Advent. So Advent seems a lot like an extended Christmas party. And the fact that many churches hang their Christmas decorations for the beginning of Advent contributes to that impression. Advent is widely regarded as the church’s Christmas season.

There’s only one problem with that. The church already has a Christmas season. It doesn’t begin in October when Target’s Christmas season begins. It doesn’t begin on Thanksgiving when the rest of America’s Christmas season begins. It doesn’t even begin on the first Sunday of Advent! The church’s Christmas season begins on December 25th (or more precisely, at sundown on the 24th). It runs twelve days until the season of Epiphany begins on January 6th. (Hence the traditional carol which concludes with the bizarre gift of twelve drummers drumming on the twelfth day of Christmas.)

So if the church’s Christmas season doesn’t begin until Christmas, then what on earth is Advent all about? Is it really worth the wait?

Church folk commonly, if half-heartedly, lament that we’ve lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas. But the reality is that we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas because we first lost the true meaning of Advent. So recovering Advent can help us recover the meaning of Christmas. But much more than that, recovering Advent can help the church to recover its God-given identity and mission in the world.

Like all of the liturgical seasons, Advent helps the church to order our time rightly. The world’s time is utter chaos. It’s a grueling repetition of chores, tasks, meetings, errands, appointments, bills. It has no beginning and no end. And nowhere do we sense the chaos of the world’s time more than during “the holidays.” On top of our normal, barely-manageable workload, we’ve got presents to buy, food to cook, relatives to visit, parties to attend. And when that’s over, the return to the normal, exhausting chaos of everyday life awaits us in January.

But the church’s time isn’t the world’s time. Our time has a clear beginning and a definite end. Our time began when God called the world into existence “in the beginning.” Our time began anew through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And our time will come to its climactic end when Christ returns in final victory. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

That means that Christians don’t live life on the same unending, unchanging treadmill as the rest of the world. Our time doesn’t just drag on with busy, meaningless regularity. Our time carries us forward on a journey, an adventure, as we prepare for the redemption of all creation. Our time is ordered.

Nowhere is the order of Christian time more distinct and visible than during the season of Advent. While the world chaotically moves through “the holidays” succumbing impulsively to desires of nostalgia, gluttony and greed, Advent tells the church, “Wait!”

That’s a strikingly simple theme for an entire season. But it’s a theme that separates the church from the world, which reminds the church of its very identity, and which thereby recommissions the church for a new year of ministry.

Waiting is not something we middle- and upper-middle class Americans are accustomed to. After all, we didn’t become successful professionals by sitting around doing nothing. We pushed ourselves, worked hard and earned a decent living for ourselves and our families. We didn’t expect someone else to come along and hand us the life we wanted. We busied ourselves building and earning that life. Small wonder then, that we mainline American Christians just gloss over Advent and transform it into a pre-Christmas party. We just don’t have much tolerance for waiting.

“Too bad!” sings the great choir of the Christian tradition. If you’re going to follow Jesus, you’d better get good at waiting! Christians throughout the centuries have handed the season of Advent down to us precisely because it trains us to wait well. And at the end of the day, that’s really what the church is all about. While the rest of the world impatiently rushes to and fro, not sure where it’s been or where it’s going, we know where we’ve been. And we know where we’re going. The church is the community that’s able to wait.

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