Monday, December 04, 2006

It's Not Christmas Yet! The Danger of Losing Advent

It's that time of year again. That confusing time of year. The time of year where we look ahead to Christmas before we're done with Thanksgiving leftovers. The time we get out Christmas trees before it's even December. The time of year we argue about the baby Jesus in public places supported with public dollars, when it's still 60 degrees outside. And the time of year we spend ridiculous amounts of money on gifts as though they were Law, not Gospel. Of all the negative consequences that have come with the rampant commercialization of Christmas, however, perhaps losing Advent is the worst.

Yes, it seems to me that the Church is in real danger of losing Advent. Oh, it will still be on the liturgical calendar. The blue vestments will still come out four weeks before Christmas. Advent hymns will still be available for nostalgic singing. But the spirit of Advent is dashing before our eyes faster than any flying reindeer. Advent, celebrated in Church only about 5-6 hours during a four week span for most churchgoers, has a tremendous amount of competition from all the forces telling us it is "The Christmas Season," now that Thanksgiving is finally out of the way. I can just see corporate CEOs (who I am usually the first to defend), mimicking The Simpsons' Mr. Burns as they celebrate the end of Thanksgiving so Christmas spending can begin. I say, "Bah Humbug..."

Who has allowed this "Christmas Season" myth to perpetuate? The Church is partially to blame for not reminding parishioners that post-Thanksgiving does not mean this is the Christmas season. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Christmas begin, not end, on December 25? Hence, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," a tune that needs a decoder given that it was written for persecuted Catholics in England. Isn't the Christmas season 12 days beginning on December 25 and going until Epiphany on January 6? So if Christmas doesn't begin until the 25th of December, why in the world are we already talking about it? And what is the Church's role in saying "NO" to the world that wants to get to Christmas without waiting for it?

I think losing Advent carries with it at least two serious consequences. The first is that a lot of people who are in the Advent stage of their lives lose the liturgical frame of reference for that time. Anyone who spends most of their days waiting surely knows the meaning and tragedy of losing Advent. I think of widows and widowers who are waiting to be reunited with those they love, and certainly with God. I think of the unemployed who are waiting for work. I think of the sick waiting for cures, or maybe even a diagnosis. The rush to Christmas ignores the way these people are waiting, and instead says, "We're not worried about your problems. We're too focused on Christmas!"

The second problem is that rushing to Christmas without Advent is like Easter without Lent. It is like being a child and finding the presents our parents tried so hard to hide before Christmas. It is another form of cheap grace, by refusing to ignore the way we are unprepared to receive Christ. Without the recognition that we need to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus (as we prepare ourselves for his resurrection during Lent), we are ignoring that we are wholly undeserving of the birth, the incarnation itself. Of course, our Lutheran theology tells us we will never be fully prepared, and the birth then is pure grace because it comes whether we are ready or not.

Yet, it seems to me the Church should continue to remind the culture that before Christmas comes Advent. Churches should refrain from calling anything post-Thanksgiving the "Christmas season." It's not. That doesn't start until December 25. I wonder what Christmas symbols should be in the sanctuary before Christmas? Should a Christmas tree even be up before Pentecost is over? Maybe we're not only in danger of losing Advent, it seems in our hurry to usher in Christmas, we're in danger of losing Pentecost, too.

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