Someone asked me about Advent, recently. This is how I responded:
What is Advent?
Advent is a time of tension. We are ever so hopeful . . . and also remember strongly that our hope is the future, not the present. Things are really bad now.
Our society wants to rush to Christmas, to the big celebration, without thinking about a reason to celebrate. Why is Christmas good news? Putting off some of the celebrations until after a season of preparation (that is, Advent) helps us to live in that tension. On the other hand, the celebration is unavoidable, because Advent is also a time of hope. So, I think any sort of movement to remember the ugliness of the present world is good. If the entire society was sad and mournful during this time, we would have to emphasize the hopefulness, I think.
And, quite honestly, remembering the ugliness of the world today helps us to have more hope for the future, more longing for the future, perfect kingdom that is coming, which means our celebrations are so much more celebratory.
What Should Advent Look Like, Practically?
Quite honestly, my family is still wresting with the tension, for sure. For a few years now, we have extremely plain breakfasts (plain oatmeal, or plain rice) for the entire time of Advent, but our diet doesn’t change much otherwise. Then, we take the food we were going to eat (vegetables, beans, fruit, cereal, eggs, bacon, etc.) and give them to a food bank. Then, on Christmas morning, we have a huge (I mean HUGE) spread of all kinds of wonderful foods for breakfast, which lasts the whole 12 days of Christmas.
As for decorations, we have a plan to decorate a little bit each day of Advent. Each day we open a present (which is wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper) which is a decoration of some kind. Then we decorate the house. So, at the beginning, we have very few decorations (but not nothing) and as Advent progresses, the house begins to look more and more joyful and more like typical American Christmas. Actually, about half the decorations (or more) go up the last week, one day at a time, and the Christmas tree goes up Christmas Eve.
“Seriously, how do you live like that?”
We do not have things all figured out for sure . . . but I know that Americans hate to mourn, we hate to lament, we hate to reflect on the evil in the world, hate to cry. We want to rush to celebrate, rush to smile, rush to laugh. And so we have tried to find ways, tangibly, to remember the tension of the season.
We try hard not to impose this on other people, because most people don’t understand, and I think most people don’t want to understand.
Maybe another way to say it is this . . . the “silly, empty traditions” of Santa, romantic sleigh rides, sweaters, baking, etc. are only silly and empty (from a spiritual, religious perspective) if you are neglecting the tension, and only experience Christmas as future hope. Of course, the traditions are always quite meaningful as they connect us to family, friends, society, culture, etc., which can be said of fireworks on the 4th of July, costumes at Halloween, etc.
How to make Advent and Christmas Better:
But if you work hard to put tangible reminders of the present brokenness of the world into place, and you do the hard work of using those reminders to meditate and internalize the reality of the world’s brokenness all through the Advent season, I think you’ll actually find that baking, caroling, sweaters, music, decorating, movies, sleigh rides, etc. actually become far more meaningful. They become a statement of faith. They become actions that give the middle finger to the world, the flesh, and the devil . . . they become a way of saying, “My Jesus will rescue us! He will come for us! He will redeem us, no matter how horrible it looks right now! I’m not giving up hope! I am so sure that he will keep his promise, that I am going to celebrate it even before it happens!” And that confidence in the face of our brokenness is what Advent is all about.
Without that perspective, I think those traditions are not nearly as meaningful as they could be. So, don’t abandon your “traditional” celebrations . . . they connect you to family and friends, that’s wonderful . . . but if you put yourself in the place of Mary and Joseph, of Elizabeth and Zechariah, of Anna and Simeon, waiting, longing, desperate for his advent . . . all those celebrations could be far more meaningful than they have been in the past. You could turn mere “warm fuzzies” into something that goes far deeper than skin, and reaches your heart, and gives life to your soul, while maintaining the warm fuzzies.
Am I the only one who thinks about this?