Advent begins with trouble. This is the odd counter-cultural movement of the Christian year. Just when the stores are in full swing with jingling bells providing encouragement to Christmas shoppers, along comes the season of Advent. Advent is the first season of the year. Its liturgical color is blue. Advent is the season that tells the truth about the blues. It is the season that refuses to ignore the troubles that plague the world, the nations, the church, the family and the soul. Advent is the deep blue of the morning, just at dawn as the dark night is coming to an end.
This could be depressing. But it is not. Telling the truth about the trouble can lead to liberation, to transformation, to the new life that awaits on the other side of repentance. Telling the truth about the trouble draws God into the fray. In the ecumenical lectionary the first Advent text of the first year of the three year cycle begins: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We often imagine that our sung kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) is all about our guilt and transgression. But it is much more. It is also a daring, bold cry to rouse God to save us from the forces of greed and envy and violence that separate us from the kingdom come, God’s will done.
Over the years Advent and Christmas have regularly been domesticated, their high voltage reduced to a pleasurable buzz. Advent is an invitation to host the odd texts that take the church deep into the ache and grief that cries out for a savior. Instead we often reduce the four Sundays of Advent to four safe platitudes: hope, peace, joy and love. Christmas is a journey into the vulnerability of God’s mission to save the earth. The savior cannot escape the troubles– born in obscurity, hunted down by the powers. How much of this fragility and danger remain in our festivities?
There is no more difficult season in the year than this one in which to practice the challenging work of forming alternative Christian identity in western culture. My friend and rabbi, Martin, likes to say that it is much easier to be a rabbi at Hannukah than to be a minister at Christmas. “After all,” he says, “no one else in the culture is trying to tell our children what Hanukkah is all about.” Without careful work, the recovery of Advent can feel like the “scrooging” of Christmas. The prophetic rage of John the Baptist does not easily transform a culture that is determined to party in the middle of winter.
Over the years at University Hill Congregation we have worked to cultivate Advent as a distinctive alternative to the celebration of Christmas that surrounds us. We often mark New Year’s Eve on the Saturday night before the first Sunday of Advent. We share a potluck meal and looked to the seasons of the Christian Year ahead. We taught our children that we hold dual citizenship– as Canadians and as citizens in the reign of God. We mark time with two different calendars- the secular calendar and the Christian Seasons calendar- to remind us of the oddness of living between times.
On Sundays in Advent we prepare for the amazing news of Christmas. We wait. We do not sing carols, yet. We long for the coming of Jesus Christ, just as our children long for the arrival of gifts. We do not open the present early (just as we do not sing Easter hymns during Lent). We practice “waiting upon God.” We remember that the root word for “wait” in both Hebrew and Latin also means “hope.” We will not give up on God, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that is around us. We prepare our lives and homes for the reign of God with all the vigor that goes into our preparations for Christmas morning and Christmas dinner.
When the season of Christmas arrives we delight in knowing what the culture around us has forgotten: there are twelve Christmas mornings, twelve Christmas dinners. Others move on to Boxing Day sales and New Year’s plans while we are just beginning our Christmas celebrations. This bi-cultural life is a challenge. We easily fall into the habits and patterns that shape Christmas as mid-winter feast rather than as the rending of the heavens. But it is dawning on us that the twelve days of Christmas are a subversive gift, given to us by our ancestors as a mid-winter Sabbath. Twelve holidays– holy days- to tell the story, to sing the carols, and to enjoy living in the good news that God still answers the earth’s aching cry in the cry of Mary’s child.
Image above right: Untitled work on Advent. Fellowship Community, Louisville, KY.
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