Is it Christmas time? Or Advent? How should we feel and think about this time of year?
Try this scenario: Right after Halloween, we start planning and stockpiling for the Holiday, with maybe some bonus early shopping. By late November, just as Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, we burst into full Christmas mode. The decorations go up, the lights get strung, the carols are 24/7, and Santa encamps at the mall for pictures and maximum retailage. And by December 26, it's all over except the bills. That's how we celebrate Christmas!
Now contrast this: Advent is a season of emptiness, of longing. The decorations are sparse, the readings are about promises not yet fulfilled. It's the season of John the Baptizer proclaiming in the desert. The songs are not yet "Joy to the World," but "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" and "O Lord, how shall I meet you? How welcome you aright?" Rather like Lent, Advent is about waiting and self-reflection. It's remembering Israel's exile and our own longing:
The season of Advent, a season of waiting, is designed to cultivate our awareness of God’s actions—past, present, and future. In Advent we hear the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming as addressed to us—people who wait for the second coming. In Advent we heighten our anticipation for the ultimate fulfillment of all Old Testament promises, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, death will be swallowed up, and every tear will be wiped away. (CICW)
In Advent, we dwell on our need for Christ's coming, looking back to Bethlehem and forward to the New Jerusalem. It not until Christmas that the party explodes. Christmas Day is still the climax of the season, but rather than being the end, it is the beginning of celebration that carries on in worship for weeks. We sing of God's faithfulness and his promises fulfilled. We sing from Christmas Day, through New Years, right to early January (Epiphany, the traditional arrival of the wise men, is January 6, for instance, hence the twelve days of Christmas).
My point is not so much that we should all observe the liturgical calendar in detail, but that there's more going on right now than hanging tinsel. There's a lot of wisdom in that old pattern, wisdom that could be a counter-cultural witness, even to ourselves as worshiping Christians. We have a story to tell of longing, right now, that should stand out in our culture. But most of us aren't aware how much culture shapes even church holidays. As my friend Scott puts it, "Secular society knows a little something about Christmas but virtually nothing about Advent. The danger for the Church is to end up going in this same direction."
My point, my fear, is that the we have, out of ignorance or indifference, drifted into thinking about Christmas in Hallmark and secular terms, rather than Biblical themes. We are the poorer for it, and our witness is less striking and counter-cultural. Those of us who don't come out of a liturgical tradition would do well to learn a bit more about the way the church has celebrated Advent and Christmas through the centuries if only for perspective.
God promised that Immanuel would come. And he promised he would come again. Let us be prepared, not exhausted.