Its a common theological trope during the Advent season that “everyone’s doing it wrong.” It’s Advent, not Christmas! It’s the time of waiting, the time of preparation, the time to reflect on the liturgical meaning of the “new year” and to spiritually prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christmas on the proper day of the feast. Even I have jumped on board, “liking” the well-oriented facebook group Occupy Advent with its authentic message of slowing down the holiday season and re-orienting ourselves towards waiting for the birth of Christ.
In one sense, this push towards Advent-not-Christmas is a very proper one. It is the sense of emphasizing the central and concrete idea of hope within Christianity. Waiting is a basic character of hoping, and, in this sense, the season of Advent accentuates the need to hope, every day, for the New Life that Christ will bring in the end. I would hope (though I am sometimes disappointed) to hear similar sermons throughout the season before Christmas.
In another sense, however, there’s something quite extraordinary about the mentioning of the word Christmas and its celebration before the feast day itself. Liturgically, the Christmas season occurs after the actual day of Christmas, but in lived-out-daily-life, the very opposite is true. The Christmas season starts around or right after Thanksgiving, and lasts till around New Year’s Day, at which point schools begin to reopen and everyone goes back to work. Are we evacuating the sense of ‘hope’ in this picture?
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A good analogy to understand this might be a false correlation with the season of Lent and Easter. Easter remains, by and large, a Christian celebration. While usurped a bit by commercial efforts and Easter candy, the capitalistic structure of individual gain and economic success is directly opposed to the pre-Easter season of mourning and penitence. Lent begets Easter as the most beautiful opposite that reflects the central mystery of Christianity: Jesus who died and rose from the dead. Advent, on the other hand, begets Christmas in an excited, expecting, pre-teen Justin Bieber type of excitement. You can almost hear advent exlaiming “OHMYGOODNESS OHMYGOODNESS CHRISTMAS IS COMING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and jumping up and down in ecstatic joy.
Ok, maybe you can’t hear that. But still the progression is one of upwards momentum. Advent accelerates towards Christmas, while Lent decelerates against Easter, only to be astounded by its appearance–and the negation of Lent in the process–over and over again. We can’t turn Advent into Lent for its purpose is completely the opposite: Advent anticipates Christmas, while Lent turns us towards the removal of self which is overturned and renewed in Easter.
In this sense, in the sense of the naming of Christmas before its day, in its widespread acceptance by a wider culture, even in the often-muddied waters of the Christian meaning of Christmas itself, Advent is enlarged to take on the entire year of that-which-is-not-Christmas. By the time people reach Thanksgiving, the sense of Christmas at hand is palpable because people are tired of waiting all year for the celebration of the idealized form of charity and love that underscores the Christmas miracle. Christmas–with all its commercial ridiculousness–has become a celebration of the potential goodness within every person. People often give terrible gifts, they often give too many gifts, they often use Christmas gifts as a replacement for actual love and charity, but, God help them, at least they try.
There’s a reason Christmas occupies a special place in many people’s hearts and minds despite its theological inferiority to Easter. Christmas is tangible and personal–a child is born into poverty but into love–and even if poverty isn’t where you come from, there’s a sense of the priority of love over money that resonates during Christmas. Yes, yes, Christmas seems to be all about money these days, but even the sappiest of Christmas movies will tell you it is not.
So, yes, I’ll occupy Advent and stake its proper place, but I’m tending to appreciate further the perpetual Advent of daily life and the reason why Christmas is excitedly celebrated so early and so often. So wait, if you can, throughout Advent, but don’t be fooled that this waiting is too different from the “secular” waiting of the world around us.
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One of the books my toddlers enjoy (no matter the time of year) is Merry Christmas, Ollie! by Olivier Dunrea. The book describes this perpetually insistent baby gosling (as opposed to the slightly older goslings) who cries out “I WANT CHRISTMAS!” much to the chagrin of Gossie, Gertie, BooBoo, and Peedie, all of whom are patiently waiting for Christmas to come. Sometimes I appreciate the liturgical awaiting of the four older goslings, but often I just love the insistence of Ollie and his beautiful impatience.
I love it because it’s real. I love it because it reflects society. But most of all, I love Ollie’s insistence because I’m sure Mary had many moments of “I WANT CHRISTMAS” before Jesus was born! So let’s wait, and let’s appreciate the theology therein, but let’s never forget the beauty of the instinctual cry for Christmas to come and get us out of this mess.