Sometimes as clergy, I feel that I live in a bit of a bubble. Perhaps your Facebook feed this time of year is filled with holiday greetings, warm wishes and cat videos with a holiday twist. Mine is filled with angry clergy people griping about how we always skip advent and move right on to Christmas. They look something like this:
This is an annual tradition of clergy the world over. The posting of silly memes that essentially amount to complaining about starting Christmas music too early. However, there is some validity to this sentiment. This really is a holy season and it should not be skipped in favor of getting to the birth of the Christ child. Advent is that time of waiting. It reminds us that so much of our life is spent in waiting, and that waiting can be holy time. It reminds us that even through our dark cold waits, the light of Christ beckons us forward.
Here is the problem that I have with the Facebook memes around this—it seems like the real sentiment behind them is, “let’s wait to sing Christmas Carols until after the four weeks of advent.” Okay, but how about some real depth here. This, like the worship wars between contemporary and traditional, is not really about music at all. Music is just the battle ground upon which this is fought. Like so many culture wars, we don’t talk about the heart of the matter, but instead battle about one or two visible issues.
At stake behind the Advent war is not simply music, but commercialization. There really are two Christmases and too often, the fake one wins. What do I mean by that? Well, the biblical story of Christmas is one in which poor shepherds, and animals gather around a baby born into a cruel world surrounded by injustice. It is a world where the false power, glory, and cruelty of Caesar Augustus and Herod are contrasted with the compassion and love in the birth of a lowly carpenter’s son surrounded by farm animals. In the gospel of Matthew, it is the story of a poor family that becomes middle eastern refugees to flee the brutality of an oppressive ruler. It is the story of what we too often sweep aside—haven’t we heard enough of Syrian refugees already? Can’t we just talk about Trump’s latest tweet war instead? (If you can’t tell, that is sarcasm). The parallels should be striking to us.
Instead, we have fought culture wars over whether we say, “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays.” We fight wars at the entrance to Walmart over who will obtain the prized toy of the season. We wrap things in tinsel to tell ourselves that things are okay in the world, and we turn a blind eye to the places where the Christ child is coming into the world—boats fleeing along the Mediterranean Coast. This is the commercialization of Christmas, and not only is it a different Christmas from the one we have in the Biblical witness, but it completely distracts and drives our attention away from what this time of year should be about—Jesus. It is always dangerous to speculate about what Jesus would think or do, but I really don’t think Jesus would honestly care whether you said, “Happy Holidays,” instead of, “Merry Christmas.” As a matter of fact, if you look at the root of the word “Holiday,” you would find, “Holy.” Perhaps that is the real battle ground of this war, we would rather make this season about spending instead of holiness.
So while I think the advent meme war is a bit out of focus, I completely resonate with the sentiment. Christmas isn’t always “Christmas,” and what I mean by that is that Christmas often times has nothing to do with the coming Christ child and everything to do with how much money we should spend on his gifts. It too often has been manipulated by the culture to be about things that have nothing to do with our story; nothing to do with our faith. Christmas has become the shiny bauble that distracts us from the waiting through the cold and dark of winter, and the cold and dark of this world. Perhaps there is something to be said for waiting through the struggles of this world in hopes of finding real light, instead of finding the false glints reflected off the next shiny toy. So while I won’t necessarily change the music selection on Sunday morning to do only Advent hymns (honestly, even with the additions in the new hymnal there are still only a couple of decent ones), I will be intentional about how I act in the world in this advent season. I will be intentional about noticing the struggles of others and doing what I can to respond in compassion.
There is a way for us to be real about Christmas, but it is counter-cultural. It requires that we don’t just go along with the shiny and warm memes of the season, and instead, keep in focus what the original story says to us in the midst of a broken and fearful world. It requires us to stop listening to the Herod’s and Caesar Augustus’ of this world, and remember the voices long silenced that have far more important stories to tell us. This is what Christmas should be about. This is why Advent truly is important. Advent teaches us to stop and listen. Advent teaches us to discern the voices around us and determine whether they speak of the good news of the gospel, or the good news of Holiday ads. Advent requires that we determine whether the happiness of the season around us is simply anesthetic to numb us from the pain of the world, or whether we are preparing ourselves for real joy that is born out of something so much more than piles of cookies.
This season, take the time to listen. Take the time to wait. Take the time to discern. Take the time for Advent. Make this mean something more than false and fleeting happiness that will dissipate as the torn wrapping paper is cleared from the living room floor. Make this season about preparing for the Christ child to truly transform your heart and mind, that we might be left with something more than extra pounds around our mid sections and more stuff that will break in time for next Christmas.