As the Advent season begins, a season of reflection and hope, America’s Christians gather again in earnest – to go shopping. The malls are filled, and the internet is overloaded. We’re bombarded with ads for things we don’t need that we’re urged to buy right away. Supplies are shrinking, sales are ending and if we don’t act now, we’ll miss out.
For many people, December is not a time to remember, but a time to forget or get through. December is the year’s most stressful month, the month in which depression is at its peak. Yet with all this in mind, some people want to make the season longer. This year, the first holiday ornaments appeared at Hallmark stores in June! In the church, the Christmas season is only 12 days long, and begins on Christmas. In the outside world, the season began 179 days early.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. It’s easy to talk about shopping and cooking and decorating and Santa and reindeer and elves, but it’s not so easy to talk about guilt and sin and sacrifice and death and Jesus and being born again. Surface subjects require no commitment. And to be honest, we probably wouldn’t even want the two combined: “Jesus paid it all – but at Macy’s, you can pay in monthly installments! Does your home smell like a manger? Buy a Yankee Candle! Gold is the perfect holiday gift – shop at Wise Men Jewelers today!”
It takes a leap of faith to resist the celebration of the mainstream and to embrace the season as originally intended. Before Christ, the government was corrupt, the courts were inconsistent, the education system was a shambles, a huge gap existed between the rich and poor, many were unemployed and enemies were at the gate. The people of Israel held onto prophecies to keep them going: that one day a child would be born who would grow into a king, who would be just and fair and kind, who would listen to the poor and attend to their needs. That the people who walked in darkness would see a great light. That their sins would be forgiven. That a new kingdom would be established in the heavens, a kingdom of love and light.
This was the hope of the faithful widow, who dropped her last coin in the offering and didn’t even ask for a receipt. It was the hope of the leper, who had been told there was no cure for his condition. It was the hope of the centurion, who didn’t like his boss. It was the prayer of the unheard poor, of women and children, of Simeon and John: that someday, all those prayers would break through.
And then Jesus came.
We now have everything that the ancient people hoped for. How have we responded? Has it been with gratitude and humility? Do we wake up every day and say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m still alive, I can’t believe you’ve been so good to me, I can’t believe I’ve got another day to try to get it right?” Do we declare his love to the nations, to the community, to our families, to our friends? Are we giving our lives to serve him?
In many ways, we do celebrate Christmas the right way. We visit, we give, we help the poor. We come to church to sing and worship and pray. But inside these walls, we’ve got something the outside world has forgotten: we’ve got Advent. Advent is more than just a season to vent about ads. It’s a season in which we raise up the values of hope, love, joy and peace. It’s a quiet season, an introspective season, a season in which we light candles and invite the Lord to transform us. It’s meant to be slow, unhurried, and undistracted – the opposite of the holiday rush. It’s a season in which we say, “Come,” as if Christ isn’t quite here – or as if we haven’t yet made ourselves open to receive him.
O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. Come into our middle class homes and show us that if we lose some of our stuff, we’re still okay. Come into the streets of Sayville and shine a great light. Dispel our fear and depression, our anxiety over what tomorrow will bring. Teach us how to give not by buying things, but by saying and doing things that honor your kingdom. Help us to find balance – for every minute of shopping, a minute of prayer. O come, o come, Emmanuel. Be our inner peace, our candle in the night, our rest along the way. O come, o come, Emmanuel, and be our challenge. Be the conviction that tells us we’re not alright, we’re not okay, we need to change, to get down out of our trees like Zachaeus, to cast down our nets like Peter, to leave behind our fields of excuses and flocks of rationalizations, and to remember why we are here, who we belong to and at what cost we were purchased. O come, o come, Emmanuel, enter into our hearts and homes and make us new creations, worthy to be your vessels, to serve your kingdom and to shout from the rooftops, my God, how great thou art!
Outside these walls, the world may have jumped four weeks forward, but inside, this is how Advent begins: with a single candle, a single light, a single life sent to redeem the world.