Advent. Perhaps the most misunderstood, and guilt filled, season of the Christian year. You will see tons of posts shaming people for not doing it “properly.” There will be vicious church fights about why we’re not singing Christmas songs on December 12th! And right now the heavily armed camps of Blue and Purple adherents are stock piling candles and hangings.
Come back with me, back to when Christmas was new. Christmas as a feast of the church is fairly modern, compared to say Easter. Easter was the first feast celebrated by the early church, it was the only special feast other than the weekly Sunday resurrection celebration. Then the season of Lent developed as preparation for Easter. And slowly the calendar began to expand, to fill, with ways to help human people mark the year more fully with Christian feasts. (Especially as those who had known Jesus in his life died and left behind a church with no memory connection to his life and work.) Christmas was originally set to coincide with a ruckus Roman religious festival, Saturnalia, which was full of drinking, partying, and excess. Advent stretched through the party of Saturnalia and was a long solemn fast that set the Christians apart from their neighbors wild carousing. And then, while the Romans were nursing their hangovers, the Christians broke out there own celebration (full of church services instead of drinking games because well we’ve always been a little bit God’s frozen chosen I suppose). It was all purposefully set in sharp contrast to the culture around them.
There’s a reason Advent rather lost it’s meaning. With the coming of Constantine we Christians thought the culture around us was Christian. It wasn’t (that’s another story and a long one). Here in the US it was at best Amerianity. A civil mashup of patriotism, democracy, and capitalism wrapped in a cross shaped, star spangled flag; American now, heaven in the future. Our older members still remember when everyone went to church, when their church was the center of social life. Many of them still go for the simple reason that their friends are there. But what happens in our culture during the four weeks before Christmas was not in fact Advent. Oh we called them Advent calendars but that doesn’t mean the wild festival full of parties and obscene consumption, has anything to do with the shocking Incarnation of God in the form of a homeless, soon to be refugee baby, born to unwed parents.
And that is why Advent matters in the church today. Because finally Christendom is dying (thank God!), the culture that claimed to be (but wasn’t) Christian is shrugging off that cloak and revealing itself for what it is, and the Church is invited to once again offer a true alternative to the world. The Jesus movement began on the margins as an alternative to the culture of the Roman empire, a culture rather stunningly similar to our own today. Militaristic, entirely sure of its own superiority in the world, and utterly obsessed with wealth, power, and beauty. It’s the sort of culture where people (at least in adverts) buy one another $100,000 cars (or confusingly Santa does) and enormous diamond necklaces to celebrate the birth of a peasant from Galilee.
It’s the sort of culture where we skid into December 25th so exhausted we can barely strip the poor dried out Christmas tree and have it on the curb, with relief on December 26th. Glad to see the whole hang over inducing, debt riddled, dysfunctional guilt fest behind us.
None of it is necessary, when we look back it doesn’t actually make us happy or satisfied, or anything but head achy and poor. What if the church gave us an alternative. What if the church was brave enough to be different. Brave enough to say yes with Mary, to spend less time decorating and partying and more time quietly and bravely building a new and better creation?
Last night our little struggling parish glowed with activity, the youth and their friends lit up the kitchen with laughter and silliness as they cooked a meal for the local women’s shelter (something they do monthly, don’t let anyone tell you the youth today don’t care) while another little group of us gathered to eat and sing and pray about Advent and the strange thing we Christians do this time of year.
In the middle of a world gone made with hatred, and violence, where lives mean less than profits, the church has the opportunity to stand in contrast, to be the place where the doors are open, where arms are open, where hearts are open, where time is open and slow, where the scale uses a whole different set of balances.
At first, I suspect, it won’t be popular, or comfortable at all. We’re conditioned for the world as it is. But what we really want, deep down within, is the world as it could be. There before us, rising like dawn is the church’s chance to try again to fall asleep in the dream of God and wake to something new.