Was it this year’s unusual calendar? Or maybe it’s that I’m now retired from the pastorate? But it seemed like Christmas mirth and zaniness had free reign to run unimpeded before the Advent fun-police had any authority to step in. Now, almost certainly, it’s too little, too late.
An exceptionally early American Thanksgiving and a very brief Advent season (only 21 days) conspired to give those of us in the US about ten days of early and unrestricted Christmas merry-making. Trees were up and lights were lit. Parties and concerts, festivals and markets — all were held before Advent even began yesterday. (I’ve always given a pass to those who put up their outdoor decorations before frosty winds did blow. No sense in stringing rooftop lights in a blizzard.)
Let me state forthrightly that my aim today is to irritate the Advent purists among us. I used to be one. While my pendulum has been swinging the other direction for a while, now in retirement perhaps it has reached its extreme.
As is so often the case, it is the convert who is dangerously zealous. Think Saint Paul, from legalist to libertine. Maybe that’s me with Advent. It’s not only that I’ve come to enjoy Andy Williams and Amy Grant, chestnuts roasting and sleigh bells ringing. You want a garish 20 foot inflatable illuminated snowman in your front yard? Once I pulled up my tasteful and theologically-trained nose. Now? Bless you!
I confess that as a pastor I had this faint feeling it was my responsibility to hang on to decorum, to hold back the Christmas onslaught, to make Christmas “meaningful” — as if other ways of moving through December could not be.
For most of my life, and still somewhat today, my theological inclination has been toward the counter-cultural, the nein — what you Kuyperians might call antithesis. I easily tilt curmudgeonly. So why my complete cultural capitulation to Christmas at the expense of Advent?
I’ve long observed that those most scrupulous about “keeping Advent” are frequently those who also hold a squishy christology. Why the strictness in the lesser, but the generosity in the greater? Isn’t it somewhat bizarre to be unsure if you can affirm the Apostles’ Creed but certain that Christmas carols cannot be sung in Advent? In these days when so many are deconstructing the doctrinaire rigidity of their faith, what would it mean to turn our deconstruction project toward our Advent inflexibility?
Plus, there’s the unbearable elitism. To my ears, the comments of Advent purists typically carry the same tone as censure for using the salad fork to eat fish or wearing white after Labor Day. It comes across as smug, sour, and suspicious of fun. Why must we have four weeks of braying but only twelve days — and maybe only one Sunday — of glorious and beloved Christmas music? (Okay, I’ll admit that’s not entirely fair. It feels like there has been a concerted effort for better, brighter, and more beautiful Advent music. And some of the staples are wonderful, too. Nonetheless…)
And let’s not act like Advent esoterica is truly the template of our Decembers. Six and three-quarters days a week we wear gaudy sweaters, imbibe glowing green drinks, and watch Hallmark movies. It is only in church, primarily worship, that we insist on Advent restraint.
Here is what I am not saying: that lament and longing, watchfulness and apocalyptic visions, patience and quiet are not part of the Christian story. Of course, they are. I am not convinced, however, that the four weeks prior to Christmas are the time to push them. They are lost and overwhelmed. They are received as pessimistic and grinchy, when actually, of course, they are not.
Every year in Advent I read two or three wondrous reflections that speak mightily with prophetic and apocalyptic voices. Some are achingly beautiful with quiet strength and yearning. Don’t stop. But sometimes less is more. And honestly, too many efforts to speak like this end up sounding dismal or pompous instead.
Don’t think that I’m giving a free pass to everything Christmas-y. I’m not a big Santa fan. Consumerism is awful any time of year. Still, I don’t want the church to be seen as a place where joy must be rationed, meaningfulness earned, and beauty is only for the enlightened few.
There have been lots of creative and a few odd proposals to address these issues. An earlier Advent season? A longer Advent season? Even moving the Christian celebration of Christ’s incarnation to a different time of year and giving December to all the rest of the stuff. Interesting thought-experiments, perhaps, but we all know it won’t happen.
Let me dial down the hyperbole, before you lose all respect for me. I know many of you are crafting beautiful, meaningful Advent seasons, and mostly steering clear of the criticisms I’ve launched above. I’m sure better preachers than I find the lectionary’s designated scripture passages for Advent to be inspiring and full of Good News. And yet I say, check yourself for elitism, rigidity, and bah-humbug in the days ahead.