Every year it’s the same. Once Thanksgiving and Halloween have passed, retailers and advertisers are intent that the world should think “Christmas” (and shopping). Suddenly the festive décor is up, carols are heard everywhere, and strangers greet one another with seasonal cheer.
To many of us these are welcome changes, no matter how early they appear. What believer wouldn’t prefer to see wholesome ads featuring families by firelight, rather than images that appeal to baser desires? But in the rush to focus on the feast of Christmas, something deeply important can be missed: Advent.
Culture’s rush to cash in
Now, we understand why modern culture is the way it is. For retailers, all holidays are opportunities to sell, and Christmas is the jackpot of holidays. Meanwhile, for those who aren’t religious, the cultural festivities surrounding the season are their own reason: work parties, concerts, family gatherings, not to mention general feelings of warmth and goodwill.
But while many Christians are eager to critique culture’s failure to recognize “the reason for the season,” they themselves can lose sight of the context for the feast.
Skip to the celebration
Christmas and Easter are high points in the Christian calendar. But by what rationale have so many churches come to say in essence “We’ll take the feasts, but don’t burden us with the fasts”? The joyous celebration of Christmas follows the quietly reflective season of Advent in the same way that Easter follows the season of Lent – and for very good reason.
Advent was never meant to be a drawn-out celebration of Christmas. It grieves me to see this happening in many churches, where four weeks is barely enough time to run all the Christmas-themed programming that is planned. You see one of the things I love most about the Christian calendar is the way that it makes space, not only for celebration, but for lamentation, and for all of the other experiences common to the life of faith.
By skipping the quiet reflection of Advent, believers can forget that Christmas isn’t actually about pageants and carols and happy families by firelight. No, it’s about a promise fulfilled, and another promise that has yet to be fulfilled. We celebrate Christ’s first coming, but we still wait in hope for the fulfillment of the promise that he will come again.
And this is not a mere historical technicality. The call to give Advent its rightful place is not merely a matter of old-school preference. It has real on-the-ground implications for believers who feel unable to join the celebration: and no wonder!
A holy pause for those who grieve
How many people do you know who readily admit to “hating Christmas”? Okay, perhaps that’s a small number. But now, how many do you know who are grieving, even with a long-standing grief? How many experience anxiety around family gatherings? How many are in financial circumstances that make the pressures of the season distressing? How many are lonely, disappointed, struggling, and made more aware of these things by the season? Is your list getting long? Among those I know well, at least one of these descriptions applies to all of them. No one’s life is free from struggle. It only seems that way when we observe from a distance.
Not one of us has an “instagramable” heart. We may present the best possible face. We may want others to admire the blessings we gratefully count as ours. But this is never the whole story. And the more we present a perfect image, the more isolated we truly become.
In this age of deep isolation, the message of Advent is crucial. We need to hear the encouraging voice that says: Wait! Hold on! God is faithful! Now you suffer for a little while, but it’s not forever! One day our Messiah will come just as we were promised!
Hold fast to the promise
Advent is about remembering the promise of Christ’s coming – and the centuries during which God’s people struggled, holding to that promise, many of them dying before they could see its fulfillment. In the same way, it is about the promise of Christ’s second coming – and the centuries of believers who have clung to this promise in a similar way. Because this is where we find ourselves in the larger Christian story: waiting, believing, trusting that God will do what he said he would.
Advent is about the people who sit in darkness, straining towards a great light. It’s about patiently holding fast to God’s word in all the ordinary moments. It’s about turning our hearts to him in sincere repentance and urging others to do the same. And ultimately, it’s about the hope of that family feast in heaven, where our loving Father will wipe every tear from our eyes.
Only a real participation in Advent can prepare us to celebrate a real Christ-Mass: not the parties or the concerts or even the family gatherings, but the knowledge that our God keeps his promises and has made a way for us to one day come to our true home.