Unwrap the gifts of Advent
Christmas should be an attitude toward life, not an endurance exercise. This Advent season, why not shop the scriptures rather than the malls to prepare?
Thanksgiving, and in some places Halloween, is barely over these days before stores begin to play Christmas songs as background sound for the orgy of buying and wrapping and overspending. The pumpkins and scarecrows and cornucopia of October and November get put hastily aside to make way for cheap tinsel and cute music and flashing lights.
The signal is clear: There is no time to sink into the quiet of fall that is promised with the coming of Thanksgiving. By the Friday morning that follows it, the raucousness of capitalist Christmas bursts suddenly upon us. The warnings of autumn, with its browning of leaves and graying of skies, that life, too, is susceptible to the wisdom of the seasons gets lost in the plastic world of limitless desire and limited resources. Shopping becomes what Advent is meant to be: the consuming preparation for one of the greatest feasts of the Christian year.
But commercialism is not the problem. We’re a consumer society whatever the season. The problem is that the lack of contemplative consideration that comes with Christmas consumerism too often drowns out the sounds of Advent and drains not only the feast but even, perhaps, the rest of the year of its meaning.
As a result, we have managed to make Christmas an event, a passing fancy, an exhausting endurance exercise, stripped of reflection by the pressure of social protocols. But judging from the scripture of the season, Christmas is surely meant to be an attitude toward life, not a carnival. It is meant to be arrived at slowly and lived succulently. Christmas is not meant to be simply a day of celebration; it is meant to be a month of contemplation. But because Advent has been lost somewhere between the Thanksgiving turkey and the pre-Christmas sales, we have lost one of the richest seasons of the year. Unless we can reclaim Advent, the lack of it will show dearly in the way we go through the rest of life itself.
Advent is an excursion through scripture meant to give depth and emotional stability to the days for which there are no songs, no tinsel, no flashing lights to distract us from its raw, tart marrow. Advent grounds us in the assumptions, crowned by memory of Christmas, that give us strength for all the dull times of the rest of the year.
First Week of Advent: Hope
Jeremiah 33:14—The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
Luke 21:26–27—“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
Life, Jeremiah proposes in the first week of Advent, is a promise. But the fulfillment of the promise, Luke points out, is not always apparent. On those two visions rests the virtue of hope that Christmas is meant to signal.
Hope is a thin and slippery thing, sorely tested and hard to come by in this culture. We have been bombed and wounded, frightened and enmeshed in things not of our own choosing, not even of our understanding. There is an enemy out there whom we cannot see and do not know.
More than that, we have seen the social fabric of the country rent, not only by others but even at our own hands: We have sold violence and produced violence and defended violence for years. We have cut back on social programs and increased our military spending on Neanderthal weaponry that wounds the national infrastructure and gives little or no security. We have substituted power for hope and found ourselves powerless. We feel hopeless.
But hope is not for easy times, the first week of Advent says. Hope comes only when hope is gone, when we are “fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon” our worlds. Then hope and only hope reigns supreme. Then we see the works of a God who sends compassion through strangers and support through bureaucratic systems. Then we go color blind where people are concerned and see Jesus where Jesus has always been—in the eyes of the other who waits to see that same Jesus in our own.
Hope is not insane optimism in the face of palpable evil or dire circumstances. It is not the shallow attempt of well-meaning but facile friends to “cheer us up” in bad times. It’s not the irritating effort of ill-at-ease counselors who work to make us “reframe” our difficulties so that everyone around us will not have to deal with them, too. No, hope is not made of denial. Hope is made of memories.
Hope reminds us that there is nothing in life we have not faced that we did not, through God’s gifts and graces—however unrecognized at the time—survive. Hope is the recall of good in the past, on which we base our expectation of good in the future, however bad the present. It digs in the rubble of the heart for memory of God’s promise to bring good out of evil and joy out of sadness and, on the basis of those memories of the past, takes new hope for the future. Even in the face of death. Even in the fear of loss. Even when our own private little worlds go to dust, as sooner or later, at length or at least a little, they always do. Or as Czech president Václav Havel put it: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
The first week of Advent calls us to hope in the promise that God is calling us to greater things and will be with us as we live them.
Second Week of Advent: Repentance
Baruch 5:1—Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever.
Luke 3:3—He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Week two of Advent brings strange but wondrous comfort to a people accustomed to being No. 1, the greatest, first, the richest, the best—but not assured of it. We strive to achieve all our lives. We applaud achievement and expect achievement. We make ourselves sick from lack of achievement. We drive the children of such a society to win at all costs. We weep over silver medals and give account only to gold ones gained by the fraction of a second.
To be less than superior, less than perfect in such a society is to be a failure. But scripture, here as in so many places, simply turns the world as we know it upside down. We are not called to be perfect, this week’s scripture teaches, we are called to be sorry. Perfection belongs to God; repentance belongs to us. The sorrowful heart God embraces. The perfect heart is long dead to growth. The sorrowful heart craves it.
If perfection is not the essence of the spiritual life, repentance is. To go down into the cave of the self, to look into the mirror of the self, to realize the struggles of the self—selfishness, vindictiveness, fear, lust—and to lay those bare is not to risk damnation. It is to take the first step on the road to union with the God who makes up all our deficiencies.
It is only repentance that opens us to the rest of the world. The truth is that the opposite of repentance is the asphyxiating arrogance that chokes off truth, that gags grace, that smothers the God in us so that we can make ourselves God: I did it, and I’d do it again. I hurt you, and I’m not sorry. I know the gospel, but I have no intention of living it. Vengeance is more important now. Getting ahead is more important now. Being in power is more important now. Being right is more important now.
It is only repentance that shatters the center of the self-centered soul. The great irony of the spiritual life is that it is only when we know that we have done wrong that we become capable of being right. Anything else leaves no room for the inpouring of God because it is far too full of itself.
The rabbis taught that sinners are actually closer to God than are the perfect. We are all tied to God by a thread, they say. When we sin, the cord breaks. But when we repent, the angels tie a knot in the cord that brings us closer to the heart of God, closer to the source of grace, closer to Truth. Then there is no reason, no place for “robes of mourning and misery.” There is only the freedom that comes with knowing the self well enough to understand the greatness of the God who loves us as we are and gives us the grace to be capable of more than we are doing.
The second week of Advent calls us to recognize our weakness and to know without doubt that God supplies for it.
Third Week of Advent: Contentment
Zephaniah 3:17—The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.
Luke 3:10–14—“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Scripture is very clear: God likes us, takes delight in us, in fact. God rejoices in our creation and wants us to be who we are, no more, no less. The problem may be that we have not yet learned to like ourselves. Or as G. K. Chesterton put it, “True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.” To become contented with what we are and what we have, to be at peace doing what we do and becoming what we are is a gift “arduous and rare.” We have to work at it.
The desire to do more than we can possibly do, to be more than we really are, to get more than we clearly need leaves us in terminal dissatisfaction. We are disappointed with life. We don’t appreciate even the people around us. And eventually, driven ourselves, we drive them, too. We want more than those who are the lifelines of our own existence, the love of our lives—our children, our families, our coworkers—can possibly give. The effect of that kind of discontent destroys relationships. It also takes the very joy out of living and being and growing.
When people ask John what they should do in life, his answer is disarmingly simple: “Do whatever it is that you do,” he tells each of them. “Do it right, but don’t do it excessively. Don’t do it in ways that come down heavy-handed on anyone else. Give every system what it deserves and not one thing more.” In other words, don’t give yourself over to agitation and domination and ambition and power and lordship. Be soft-souled and openhearted. Be content with life yourself and be gentle with others.
Contentment and delight in life may seem, at first glance, to be a strange Advent message—not stringent enough, not demanding enough to be “holy.” But it is a warning to be alert in this season when God comes to us through a gentle, defenseless child that all of us are ultimately defenseless. All of us need the gentling of the other.
Throughout history sins have been committed in the name of religion by people who used “holiness” to justify their being spiritually discontented, hard on others, disgruntled with life, soured on mercy, and righteous in their judgments. It is a long cry from a stable, a baby, a homeless mother, and a pleading father who come quietly, bearing a tender God to Earth.
“Contentment,” Socrates said, “is natural wealth.” It is the lesson of the stable, as well, to a world forever agitated in its pursuit of things, of money, of power, and even of “holiness.”
The third week of Advent calls us to live life with heads up and arms open, content to be alive and pulsing with fullness of spirit whatever the circumstances of the day.
Fourth Week of Advent: Commitment and Smallness
Micah 5:2—But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.
Luke 1:45—“Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
In week four of Advent we come closer and closer to the heart of the Christmas message: God comes to us always in small things and asks us to believe in our own smallness, as well. The month of preparation that starts with hope, acknowledges failure, and counsels contentment now asks us to believe that God is at work being born in us, too, however little we think we can do, however faltering our efforts, however small and ineffective we claim we are, however simple our successes. The God who does not expect perfection from us does expect commitment, wholehearted and untiring, faithful and trusting, full of life and full of spirit. We are not here for nothing.
In a society, wealthy as it is, where children go to bed hungry every night, in a country where violence is the drug of choice, in a world where people are used as pawns in the corporate power game, underpaid and undefended, we are not here for nothing. Advent requires that we prepare to do some birthing of the reign of God on our own.
The temptation is to plead powerlessness, to argue for our distance from the issues, the information, the decisions. But it takes no power at all to ask teachers and store owners and company executives why children in the sweatshops are working for pennies 12 hours a day at the age of 7 to make our clothes. It takes no power at all to serve at a soup kitchen. It takes no power at all to write a letter to the editor pointing out the disparities of the local budget or the lack of day-care centers or the need for free clinics in the town and medical insurance for children in the country.
The fact is that the stables of the world still house children whom the Christ child, whose birth we prepare to celebrate, came to raise to life. This time it is our door before whom they stand and beg for shelter while people beg for charities outside the stores where we buy our gifts. We are the people being asked to take them into our minds and hearts and souls. We are not here for nothing.
Commitment is the willingness to do something in our own lives that makes life better for others, whatever our smallness, however remote we feel from the problem. Commitment has nothing to do with our power. It has to do with our willingness. God does not lay the burden of conversion simply on the mighty. In fact, God always chooses the little ones—the Bethlehems and the Marys—for life’s great new tasks. Because they are mighty? No, precisely because they are not. In them, in us, God’s presence is more magnified. If God is with even us, if God can do great things through us, God can indeed do anything—and we can do anything, too.
The fourth week of Advent calls us to recognize and accept the power of smallness.
Isaiah 52:9—Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
John 1:12–13—Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
There is a certain amount of misunderstanding about Christmas. It is not the birth of Jesus. It only commemorates the birth of Jesus. Christmas is really meant to mark our own new beginning of spirit and life and understanding and commitment. It is our own rebirth that Christmas seeks to celebrate.
Christmas is only the culmination of an Advent that sets us on a road to new life, new insight, new awareness, and new energy of heart.
This Advent calls us to hope that whatever we need to continue the excavation of soul that we’ve begun will end in a new awareness of Jesus with us always.
This Advent invites us to move away from a neurotic and unattainable perfectionism that can only depress our spirits to the kind of sorrow of heart that leads us to begin over and over and over again to confront the effects of sin in the world with hearts high and souls ready.
This Advent guides us to develop the internal contentment it takes to reshape a grasping and hectic world around us with quiet certitude rather than to accept it with unthinking or even sinful complacency.
This Advent asks us to realize the power of smallness again. It moves us to recommit ourselves to re-form our own minuscule worlds to take in Christ the child, Christ the outcast, Christ the refugee, Christ the other whose strangeness frightens us but whose otherness will teach us a great deal more about the world than we know at the present time. Christmas calls us to take our lives and break them open at the crib where Jesus waits for us today.
Mary and Joseph, scripture teaches us, went to Bethlehem because they were from the “tribe of Judah.” They had to leave home to go home, in other words. It may be a Christmas lesson for all of us. Tied up in our own little worlds, we may be missing the one Jesus came to save through us unless and until we reach out to it.
Hope, repentance, contentment, commitment, and smallness are the Christmas gifts this year’s Advent readings can prepare in us so that we finally celebrate the feast day in ourselves, not simply the memory of another one that we are forever tempted to keep at the comfortable distance of 2,000 years.
Image: Aaron Burden on Unsplash