Essay: There is another, lesser-known winter holiday, less about shopping and parties than quiet introspection. Take respite there.
You say that you have mixed feelings about the whole Christmas thing? The shopping, traffic and crowds, the office parties and trips to Santa, the background of little drummer boys and singing chipmunks?
Or maybe “mixed feeling” is hardly strong enough? Maybe you’re out-and-out disgusted? Not quite a grinch looking to stuff the whole thing back in a bag, but wondering about the meaning of it all.
If you are experiencing any of this, where in heaven’s name might you go to find a different experience?
Here’s an idea that may not be obvious as a place to find respite from Christmas. Try church.
Not every church, but many, celebrate the four weeks prior to Christmas as another season of the spirit altogether, Advent. Christmas is reserved for its appointed twelve days, from Christmas Day on December 25 to January 5, the day before Epiphany.
Advent is as different from Christmas as the medieval plainsong hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is from Charles Wesley’s “Joy to the World.” That is to say, Advent is more a minor key season. Its great hymns, “Watchman,Tell Us of the Night,” “Wake, Awake for Night Is Flying,” or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” are more haunting than triumphant, more filled with longing than joy. They don’t so much invite full-on celebration — that comes later — as they invite reflection, meditation, waiting and wondering.
There’s spiritual wisdom to the idea that we don’t just flip the switch marked “celebration” or suddenly proclaim “peace and goodwill.” We prepare for it. We wait for it. We consider what we need to do, by way of making peace and extending forgiveness, so that “peace and goodwill” are more than empty sentiments when we proclaim them.
Moreover, Advent grants space for the interior life to which winter weather, as well as shorter days and longer nights, seems an invitation. In some earlier cultures, it was customary at this time of year to slow down, even cease usual activity, by pulling the wheels off the cart or wagon. A wheel was brought inside and converted to a wreath with a circle of candles and greens. The message of this conversion of wheel into wreaths? Slow down. Reflect. Enter into the womb of winter dark. Anticipate a time of renewal and new beginning.
This is the origin of the Advent Wreath that you will see in many churches and homes. Our problem is that too often we miss the first step of plucking a wheel off the car to ensure that we slow down and pay attention to the interior life.
Should you seek shelter from Christmas by attending the Advent services of a church, you may notice another quite odd thing, the Scripture lessons or texts that are read and reflected on during these weeks.
You might imagine that it would be all about Joseph and Mary, Bethlehem and manger, wise men and shepherds. That will come, but later. What you get instead is nearly shocking.
Last Sunday for instance the main reading featured Jesus telling his followers what to do when the whole world seems to be shaking and falling apart. His advice is counter-intuitive. When everything is shaking and you’re tempted to hunker down, “Stand up, raise your heads, your redemption is near.”
Much of this message fits our own time. Most of the old assumptions no longer seem to hold. Tried and true methods don’t work as well as they once did — in almost every area of life. And there is quite a lot of uncertainty about the future. A time of shaking.
There’s a sense in which, to quote a friend, we seem a kind of “twilight people,” imagining that we live at the end of the day, in a diminished time, a time of endings. Moreover, there’s a tendency, both religious and secular, to look back — to imagine, in religious language, that redemption occurred all in the past. But here’s Jesus on the first Sunday of Advent saying, “Stand up, raise your heads, your redemption is near.” It’s out there; it’s future.
Advent challenges the frequent recourse to nostalgia, toward idealized better days in the past. It invites us to a different stance in life — long memory to be sure, but also deep, vast hope. Twilight thinking may suggest that we are late in the story of the human experience. But what if we’re not? What if we’re quite early? What if our notions of being on the decline or at the end of the day, are really a kind of slothful despair?
After these messages, you get several doses of one of the Bible’s strangest figures of all, John the Baptist. He is the original Hairy John, to recall the title of a men’s movement book of a decade ago by poet Robert Bly.
John is a fiery prophet who sets up his pulpit on a stone in the wilderness. He is dressed in skins and camel hair and subsists on an ascetic’s diet of honey and locusts. When the fashionable people come out from the big city to see what this odd figure has to say and why he’s drawing a crowd, he doesn’t mince words. He calls them “a brood of vipers,” and says that if their faith really counts for anything, it should “produce fruit”; that is, show results in lives of justice. He gives very direct instructions about what a just life looks like. “Whoever has two coats should share with the person who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
This is Advent, really more a time for self-examination and cleaning up our act, more a time of fasting than feasting. If you’re longing for something different this holiday season try Advent.