In my lifetime Christianity has gone from mainstream to margins. This is especially true for the mainline Protestant traditions, like Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, and my own, Congregational/ United Church of Christ.
These were, by and large, the neighborhood churches with names that indicated their tie to a specific town or place. Now they have been eclipsed, largely by secular culture and partly by more consumer-oriented big-box or mega-churches.
I am never quite sure if our new location at the margins of the culture is a good thing or a bad one. We’re further from the centers of cultural power and influence, but probably closer to Jesus.
At no time of the year do I feel our marginal location more keenly, and yet more gratefully, than now.
For Christians the current season is Advent, not Christmas. Advent began this past Sunday. It lasts throughout the four weeks before Christmas. Christmas for us is also different. Not a single day but a season, a twelve day season that begins on December 25. Not only that, but Advent is — for the church — the first season of a new year. For us last Sunday was a New Year’s Day.
And that’s odd. Annually, I get a calendar produced by a congregation in Canada that begins the new year and calendar on the first Sunday of Advent. Instead of pages devoted to months, each one is for a season: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and so on. These days I find hundreds of Christian congregations that are shifting the focus, from consumption to compassion.
Not only are we out-of-synch with the dominant culture’s calendar, but we mark a new year not as the culture does, when days get brighter (after the winter solstice), but as they grow darker. As the darkness deepens, we say something new is at hand. What can that possibly mean? Perhaps this — that everything isn’t in our hands, that it's not all up to us. And that there is another power at work in the world besides our own. In the darkness, a hidden holy spirit stirs.
Just before this Advent began we learned that our second grandchild is on the way. Though the child’s mother does not yet look pregnant, she feels the change and so do we (though not quite, thankfully, in the same way she does). Together we pore over the black and white ultrasound photos as if looking at grainy snapshots of great-grandparents. The photos shows a slip of new life curled like a half-moon in the womb.
This will be that couple’s first child. They are full of a quiet excitement and anticipation, as are we. But the show, so to speak, is not entirely their own. They are not in charge. They whisper their news to a widening circle. They begin to think about how their home and their lives will be rearranged. But mostly they wait. They wait while life gathers and grows on its own timetable, hidden from view, here but not yet here. The darkness of the womb is a holy darkness.
So, the darkness of Advent — holy darkness and a season of waiting and watching. As with the earth in the winter, important things are happening but they are hidden from view beneath blankets of leaves and snow — without our conscious and active labors.
That’s really what makes Advent both odd and wonderful. That’s what puts Advent and those who keep it against-the-grain of the culture. Ours is a culture that believes it is all, really, up to us. We’re in charge here, there is no Other.
So, we tell ourselves, if we don’t do it, no one will and it all depends on you. There’s an important truth in such propositions. What we do and what we fail to do does matter. It matters a great deal. But the words also conceal a lie. The lie is that the world depends only and utterly on our own too often anxious doing, our own frenzied activity.
I remember how strange it seemed to me when I first learned, years ago now, that in the Bible the day begins not at sunrise but at sunset. In the majestic story of creation, in Genesis, a day runs from one sunset to the next sunset, and not from sunrise to sunset. The day includes the night and the darkness. In fact, the day begins as most of us call it quits.
Until I learned this I had presumed, with the usual conceit of the species, that the day began when I did, when I got up, stretched, and set about my daily doing. The church taught me something different, that I join a work-in-progress, a day that began when I was dead to the world. Life does not depend on me, but it does welcome me. Once I got over the demotion, I found this perspective calming. I joined a day begun long before I was awake, a grand and mysterious work in progress.
There’s so much in contemporary culture that urges us to anxious and unending activity, especially, and ironically, in the so-called “holidays.” There’s so much that communicates that it all depends on us and that we must be in control (whatever that means); even that Christmas won’t happen unless we make it happen. At least in my experience, Christ-coming — a new birth of hope and life — happens as much in spite of us as because of us. It arrives in the stranger we did not expect, in the reconciliation upon which we had given up, in a new possibility we had never imagined.
Advent is a judgment upon our pretensions. It is also a word of grace: Even if we’re not constantly busy, it doesn’t mean that nothing important is happening. Hidden in our daughter-in-law’s womb, new life grows at its own behest and timing. In the wet winter ground, seeds seemingly dead bide their time. Advent’s invitation: Trust this wild and holy power.
Newcomers to our faith and churches, and even those that have been around a while, are often bothered that we do not now join in the Christmas carols and other holiday songs that blare forth in every store and mall. They find the typically minor-key music of Advent to be disconcerting. Priests and pastors are sometimes pressured to, “Get with it — it’s Christmas.”
But it’s not. Not yet. The baby is not ready yet. We must wait, wait, and watch. We keep Advent, trusting that even if we’re not doing something, that doesn’t mean that nothing is being done.
For all these reasons, Advent is the oddest and perhaps the best, of seasons.