A lot of people who are reading my book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ have had no experience of the Advent season and have been curious as to how I (and my family) actually observe it. So I thought I’d put down a few thoughts about that.
Maybe the first thing that needs to be said is that Advent, more than any other season of the church year, is countercultural. Lent and Holy Week are supremely countercultural also, but our culture is accustomed to Lent, in at least some respects: the hot-cross buns, the ashes, the rush to church in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday after Mardi Gras, the palms. During Lent, the crowds on Fifth Avenue in New York take no notice of the Lenten array in the churches because they aren’t expecting anything. But when a tourist steps into St Thomas Fifth Avenue on the week before Christmas and sees no display of red poinsettias, it’s an outrage. The purpose of this withholding is to teach us that, in the birth of our Savior, we have received something that is beyond our deserving, beyond our preparations, beyond our human potential, beyond our expectations–that comes to us, in the words of beloved carols, in a “silent night,” in the “dark streets,” “in the bleak midwinter,” in “such a world as this,” to “save us all from Satan’s power.”
It is quite possible to enjoy the commercial season and still observe a rigorous Advent. My personal habits during December have been honed over 80 years. I have a split personality. I get a huge kick out of the Christmas decorations in Manhattan and in my suburban town. I would be disappointed if they were not there. I lay out the Christmas card list and I buy the tree. I shop and plan menus. I put white lights (electric candles) in all our windows on the first Sunday of Advent. We have had an Advent wreath since our children were small (going on 55 years now) even though it is a 19th century custom, not ancient. I bring out certain cherished items: a triptych of the Annunciation, pine-scented candles, dark purple table mats and napkins. I bring in evergreens from our local trees (how I miss the glossy magnolia leaves of my native South!) and fill a bowl with the Christmas cards as they come in (I love to send and receive them). We eat panettone and gingerbread. I buy cranberry bliss bars at Starbucks. I wear a purple sweater. I wrap our outdoor lantern-post with a green garland (but no ribbon). I have a rich collection of Advent music–much Bach, many different Advent carol services at various churches.
But beyond that we do nothing. There are no choruses of angels in our house during Advent. There is no tree, no wreath on the door, no crèche, no Christmas carols (although we play the Advent portions of Handel’s Messiah to a fare-thee-well), no red and no glitter until Christmas Eve. This has always been very important to me. It reminds me day to day during the season that we have no right to expect anything from God. We live in darkness and in the shadow of death and that is our rightful lot since the fall of Adam. That is mythological language, but it tells us the truth about where we are positioned in the cosmos. “The silence of the eternal spaces terrifies me,” wrote Blaise Pascal.
During Advent I spend a lot of time reflecting upon the terrifying things in the news, even more than I do during the rest of the year. Real news is not found on television but in articles of analysis in the major newspapers, newsmagazines, and journals. For sermons and for reflection, the news around the world offers more than ample illustrations of the Advent darkness. Sin and Death are not to be the last word, but as we anticipate Christmas we need to look unblinkingly at the way that even our best efforts so frequently go astray, or cause actual harm. Just for instance, we thought we had the Ebola virus under control in Africa, but now it is resurgent, in part because of uncontrollable violence and instability throughout the region. As Advent people, we cannot allow ourselves to indulge in sentimentality. Susan Sontag, Flannery O’Connor, and James Baldwin have written powerfully about the falsity of an imagined state of innocence. No adult has a right to suppose that we are innocent of the evils that afflict the world. We are all part of a web of complicity if not actual participation in evils–the brutal murder of Jamal Kashoggi being the ready example at hand. We are all caught up in the behaviors that contribute to climate change. And so forth.
I give a lot of thought to the Advent Scripture readings: Daniel, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Malachi, the Synoptic apocalypse. We need to reflect upon the fact that the very last verses in the Old Testament remind us that we are rightfully under a curse because of Sin and Death, and its signs are fractures within families. This is what makes the Christian Old Testament different from the Hebrew Scriptures. The content is the same, but the arrangement is completely different. The Hebrew Bible has the prophets in the middle and the Wisdom writings at the end. The Christian Bible has the prophets at the end, and at the end of the prophetic collections are the apocalyptic passages. This is not an accident. The Old Testament is arranged to point to the future inbreaking of a hope that is beyond human hope, beyond human potential, beyond human striving–and that is the movement of God into territory that is occupied by the forces of darkness. Over these forces, unaided human efforts are in vain. It is God alone who saves us. This is not a movement of earth to heaven, but of heaven to earth–utterly gracious because utterly undeserved.
The culture observes Christmas as though it were deserved, expected, domesticated, even routine and manageable. This is what Christmas customs and rituals celebrate: this is what we expect. We do this every year, don’t we? Therefore, Advent is a time to reflect on the sheer gratuitousness of the grace of God. The Latin root of the word is the same: gratuitous, grace–from Latin gratuitus, “given freely, spontaneously, without prior conditions.” Today, the word has come to mean “unnecessary” or “uncalled for,” for example “gratuitous” nudity in a film. When used theologically, however, it means utterly without conditions or expectations–and most particularly, without deserving. The coming of the Lord as the promised Messiah was withheld by God for centuries, lest the people of Israel should come to think of it as their due.
Therefore, postponing Christmas is an exercise in deeper understanding of what God has done and will do for us in spite of our deserving. When Christmas comes “in a burst,” as my mother explained, the explosion of festive decorating enacts the radical nature of God’s invading grace and our joyful reception of it. When my sister and I were young, Christmas Eve was the magical time. Our father brought in the tree and we decorated it. He put pine branches over the mirrors and garlanded the banisters of the stairs. It was incredibly exciting (the early scenes of Balanchine’s Nutcracker ballet capture something of this).
If a lighted tree sits around your house for a month, what is the thrill? What is the sense of something miraculous, something about to happen? Withholding this thrill is an Advent discipline. It teaches us to ponder the darkness of our world as it would be without the incarnate presence of the Lord and his heavenly Host. How much more wonderful, then, is the “burst” on Christmas Eve–“Oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant”!
At our house, our Christmas celebrations really begin on Christmas Eve, and we try to keep them going for the Twelve Days of Christmas–Christmas Day through Twelfth Night (January 5). We have people over during the Twelve Days, with our decorations intact. Boxing Day (the Feast of Stephen commemorated in “Good King Wenceslas”) is a good day for a gathering, appreciated by Anglophiles. One of our friends from church has a spectacular Twelfth Night party. I know of some young people who have a jolly tree-burning ceremony, derived from medieval customs when greens were burned, on Twelfth Night. Then on the next day, January 6, we try to find a service for the Feast of the Epiphany that really does justice to this important feast of the Gentiles coming to the light of Christ. Such services are hard to find, but oh! how wonderful they are if you come upon one. This season, Epiphany is on a Sunday, so the churches should be doing more than usual.
I have found the observance of Advent and the Twelve Days of Christmas to be a joy and a comfort throughout all my life. I can’t expect others to copy it, not even our own children, but I hope that my reflections on the season will be encouraging to many who are looking for something more profound in the weeks before Christmas Day actually comes.
This is a second draft. So many people have asked for something along these lines that I have tried to put out something quickly. I will be adding to it and revising it in days to come. FR