My friend Seth emailed me, along with other friends and family, an invitation to join him in taking time to remember Advent through this holiday season. In all honesty due to lack of maturity, respect and time I desperately needed some spurring on in this area.
A few nights ago I found myself driving in my car, singing a Christmas hymn and overwhelmed at what Christ chose to do for us…for ME. I sang along, “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as I cried and said thank you over and over. Maybe it is because I am traveling the slow road through Celebrate Recovery and have a new sense of God’s grace in our lives and the price Christ paid for me, or maybe I am growing in my relationship with the Lord and see how His birth was the first step in our romance. Or maybe it is the Holy Spirit welling up inside me, emotional and rejoicing at the birth of Christ. Whatever the reason, I have decided to not let the next 22 days go by in stress, exhaustion and day-to-day living, as a countdown to Christmas Day. Instead I choose to honor Christ, his birth, his death, and resurrection each day in whatever ways I can.
Advent vs. “Countdown to Christmas” by James K.A. Smith
I was jarred yesterday upon entering the sanctuary: the banners and colors for advent were black. A stark black cloth was draped across the pipes of the organ, and four narrow black banners stretched vertically across the front of the sanctuary–the first marked with a flame at the base, indicating the first Sunday of Advent.
This dark simplicity was so jarring because it stood in such contrast to the festive colors that have lined the city streets, the labyrinths of the mall, and even the grocery store since before Thanksgiving. The reds and greens of a secularized “Christmas” are woven through public and private spaces, accented by glittering silvers and golds, and twinkling lights of all colors. Having gathered from this dazzling, festive space outside, the black banners of the sanctuary come as a shock.
Which, of course, is exactly the point. Having been more deeply formed by Hallmark and Target, even Christians have confused Advent with our culture’s “countdown to Christmas.” Most specifically, we have forgotten that Advent is a penitential season akin to Lent. It is a season in which we are confronted with our need for a Savior, thus we relive Israel’s anquished hope and expectation. It is a season whose garments are the sackcloth and ashes of the prophets or the camel’s hair cloak of John the Baptist, not the jolly get-up of Santa Claus. Advent is a season marked by fasting in longing, living on the meagre diet of John’s locusts and honey–not the sumptuous extravagance of corporate “Christmas” banquets or the fabled indulgence of office “Christmas” parties.
We’ve been trained to want Christmas without waiting; rather than a beginning, Christmas day has been turned into a culmination, an end point. After December 25, it’s all over except for the soon-to-be-broken toys and the mounds of leftovers. Thus we busily feast before the day. Advent gets subsumed by the frantic “countdown to Christmas.” But the result is the exact opposite of Advent which is a season of penitential longing, formative denial, and hungry hoping.
This hungry hoping was captured, I thought, in a classic hymn we sang yesterday:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Advent is not yet Christmas–it is preparation for that twelve-day feast. The black of the Advent sanctuary weighs heavily on us, the same way that the darkness of the Lenten sanctuary–culminating in the darkness of Tenebrae–births in us an affective, intense desire for the inbreaking of Resurrection Sunday, for the light and white and lillies of Easter! So, too, the black of the Advent sanctuary can foster in us a new repetition of Israel’s hoping. How I’m looking forward to the transformation on Christmas day! Then, in the midst of festive light and dazzling color, we’ll sing the refrain with new fervor: