It is December…the first week of December. We have all begun racing around getting ready for Christmas, and if you are like me – already feel like you are behind schedule. There is much to do and little time to do it. In the midst of these weeks – now less than three until Christmas Eve – there is the clash between those who are preparing for Happy Holidays and those who seek a Merry Christmas and those who wish to either ignore it or kindle the fire of conflict.
Yet in the church we celebrate, observe, participate in a little season called Advent. Its focus is on getting us ready for the Christ Child by first hearing of Christ’s imminent return. We get ready for the baby Jesus to come by seeing John the Baptist wading in the water calling us to repent. We hear the prophets of old, reflecting on the one who is coming, and we hear Mary’s call to become God bearer, or on this particular year Joseph’s dream not to abandon her, sometimes only days before Christmas Eve.
These days of Advent stand in stark contrast to both Happy Holiday cheerleaders and Merry Christmas preservationists. It is a time of anticipation and expectation, excitement and preparation, as much as it is a call to forgo the observance of the world and wait by the empty manger.
But who is Advent for?
Sometimes I get the feeling that Advent is not only a church insider observance, it is an insider’s-insider’s dream. Only “real” Christians are supposed to “get it.” The Advent purity police come out, scolding anyone for singing a Christmas carol, or seem threatened by the sight of a crèche or a tree any time before December 24. Sometimes I have the feeling that Advent is a sign – not of the Christ that is coming, but of just how irrelevant the church is in today’s digital, instantaneous, post-Christian western world. We hang on to it remembering days of yore, threatened by the world that continues to infringe upon us. We sit huddled inside our churches on December Sunday mornings surrounded by blue or purple, lighting the candles on our Advent wreaths while the Salvation Army rings bells, remembers the poor, wears red Santa hats and is sure to wish everyone a “Merry Christmas.” As we see them we walk past quickly, while under our breath we think “fools” as we retreat to our alcove and lock the door.
What if we have missed the point?
It is important to remember that Advent is an invention. The early church celebrated Easter, and soon after Christmas, marking two high points in the year. Soon after the weeks prior to those festivals became weeks of getting ready to celebrating the festival through repentance, fasting, helping the poor while also serving as times of preparation and formation for new converts, especially in Lent who would be baptized at Easter. It is noteworthy to look at the gospels – Advent is nowhere in its pages. Sure, the themes of getting ready, reading the prophets, and the interactions between John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph and all our other favorites in the familiar Christmas story are all there. But Advent and Lent for that matter too – are later constructions. If you look closely we jump around in the scriptures out of sequence. It works well as a time marked to focus us on what is coming by selecting scriptures to reinforce that point as we do in both preparatory seasons, but the gospels themselves don’t read that way. Matthew starts with the genealogy of Jesus’ ancestors to prove his pedigree, Joseph’s dream, the coming of the Magi from the East, and the holy family’s flight to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod. Luke starts with both the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus as sort of a back and forth parallel until the angels visit the shepherds to tell them of the child’s birth. Mark just begins with adult John and Jesus and one of the great opening lines, “The beginning of the good news!” John takes a cosmic approach and proclaims Jesus as the word (or logos – a Greek philosophical term) who is made flesh among us, and John proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Not exactly the Advent sequence we have grown accustomed to – with the end of the world and the coming of the Son of Man, John standing in the wilderness, and a quick shout out to Mary or Joseph on the way to the manger. Older traditions placed the Palm Sunday reading as the start of Advent, an announcement that the King has come – again out of sequence, as the adult Jesus of Holy Week entering our lives marked for death just prior to his birth. It makes no narrative sense, but as a thematic emphasis on what it is we are going to celebrate come Christmas it can become a very powerful message indeed. It seems to me that these Advent themes are meant for those already inside its metaphoric walls, getting us into the story by calling us out of everything else – Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, hats, trees, carols, whatever. Like I said earlier – an insider’s insider’s dream.
But what if Advent is not meant just for us?
The story of Jesus, the thrust of the biblical narrative, and the mission of the church are not about insiders: not one little bit. Jesus is always pushing the envelope of what we find acceptable as he pushes us out the door and into the world. The church, we are reminded again and again is living stone, you and me living faith in the world, not brick or mortar, glass or steeple. The entrance of the Christ child into the world – is for (wait for it)… THE WORLD!!! not just for a secret society of our own creation we use to keep the world at bay. The Advent (or coming) of Jesus is as Mark says most profoundly, “The beginning of the good news!” What can we do with that good news?
I suggest three things that can help us reclaim Advent as an Evangelical (a fancy word that means “Good news”) exercise over the next few weeks.
1. Leave Your Crabby Pants at Home.
Seriously. In fact go in your proverbial closet right now and throw your crabby pants away. Nobody needs another Scrooge or Grinch prior to Christmas. That doesn’t mean I am suggesting we don’t stand for anything or we throw out what we believe. Actually I mean just the opposite. Sometimes I believe we have become the exact people Jesus was always in conflict with – the religious authorities. We are better than this. We have better news than this. Remember the angels appeared in the sky and did not say, “Hey you, take down those Christmas lights and stop singing Away in a Manger, it’s too darn early for Christmas!” They said, “Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” All the people. All of them. Even the ones wearing Santa hats. Give them a smile. Share a wave. If you don’t want to wish them a Merry Christmas, stand next to them, and look both ways like you are about to share a secret. Whisper with a smile. “Jesus is coming!”
2. Open the Door and Get Outside.
If we are people called to share good news with the world (and we are), it is very difficult to do such a thing behind a locked door. Get out there. Meet people. Talk to people. I’m not saying you have to beat people over the head with your Christmas spirit, but you have enough on your list you have to get done anyway. Rather than turn inward and trudge through it all avoiding the crowds – learn something. Approach your list as an entry into our mission field. Become an anthropologist. Get out and collect some data. What are people talking about? What are they doing? What seems to be stressing them out or giving them joy? Again – it is hard to assess these things indoors. Get out there, get your list accomplished, but listen. Wait. See. Tell. These are all Advent themes. Interact with others – whether they are in the checkout line beside you or searching for items on the same shelf. All it takes is a little comment, a question, or a whisper. I’ve learned over the years that the bigger the crowd, the more isolated people are. Connect. I usually wear a Santa hat for the exact reason that among strangers it makes me a safe and easy person to start a conversation.
3. Share the Joy!
Find the joy in this time – it is easy to lose sight of it. Rejoice when we are together at worship Sunday mornings and sing boldly like you mean it. Make time when you get home and sit beside your tree. Open the story and read it, again and again and again. Let the promises of God pour over you. Jesus’ coming is good news. It is good news for you. It is good news for the world.
Our calling in Advent is not to preserve a way of life and keep the barbarians at bay. Our lives are called to live and share this story, a story that was foreseen for centuries, realized in a manger, lived among others in a ministry, given away on a cross, and continued across time and space by bursting open the grave with new life. We continue that story. It is lived in your life and mine. It starts now in this time of Advent; which is meant for us to reclaim this story as we open the door to see who is outside. It is a story that is centered on God’s greatest gift to the world…Santa hats and all.
“Fling wide the door, unbar the gate; the king of glory comes in state; the Lord of lords, and King of kings, the Savior of the world who brings salvation to the earth. So raise a shout of holy mirth and praise our God and Lord. Creator, Spirit, Word.”
(Georg Weissel, “Fling Wide the Door” Evangelical Lutheran Worship. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006], Hymn #259, verse 1.)
Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you, search and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7)