Without Advent, secular Christmas is a flurry of excess—excess pressure to buy, excess pressure to party, excess pressure to have a “perfect Christmas,” as defined by number of presents, quality of decorations and quantity of food-- divided by family stress. I am always taken aback momentarily when someone asks if I have had a “good Christmas.” What does that mean? Probably my “best Christmas” was the one in which we had to cancel a trip to Bermuda with my extended family to go to San Francisco to see a neurosurgeon about the possible recurrence of a brain tumor. What was good was that we had a very stripped-down Christmas, without any of the trappings. We had family, and church, and an overwhelming gratitude for God’s incredible gift, available to all of us, anywhere, under any circumstances.
Don’t get me wrong. I may have Quaker ancestors, but I love many of the aspects of secular Christmas. I love the music and the stories, the decorations and the family get-togethers. I appreciate the non-commercial values of secular Christmas—peace on earth, generosity. These are values that are significant for Christians year-round. But if someone wants to highlight a “Giving Tuesday” or promote a Christmas cease fire, I am all for it, if it gets others to practice generosity, to strive for peace. These are wonderful things. But they are not what Christmas is about fundamentally.
Advent is not warm and fuzzy. It is stark. The biblical texts we use in Advent paint a picture of a world full of conflict and disaster. It is easy to draw parallels with the world we live in today—with fires and floods, wars and rumors of war, desperate refugees, frightened people. Advent is the beginning of the church year, and a time when we wait anxiously for the coming of the Lord. The kind of waiting that Advent brings is not the happy anticipation of a wonderful surprise. It is a waiting for judgment, for the end of times. And in the midst of it all, there is hope.
Just as Good Friday is what gives Easter its meaning for Christians, Advent is what gives Christmas its meaning for us. On Christmas we marvel to see what God has done, how God has decided to respond to sin and evil, death and destruction. God’s piece de resistance—a baby, pouring all of Godself into a vulnerable human infant, born to unwed parents living in a conquered nation, soon to be homeless refugees fleeing violence.
As modern American Christians we live in two realities. In our communities we are surrounded by secular Christmas. And there is no reason we should, Grinch-like, refuse to participate in the many activities and practices of secular Christmas. After all, it is the world we live in, and the world God loves. But at the same time, we live in Advent’s tension. Paul describes it well:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8: 18-25)
Jessica Crist, Bishop