Advent, Not Christmas

Advent, Not Christmas

Some stores opened on Thanksgiving afternoon so the annual shopping orgy could begin.  We know what we face over the next few weeks: “[How many] shopping days ‘til Christmas!”  It’s tough to resist the avalanche and to let the liturgy educate us about something else, but we might try.

This is the church season of Advent.  During this time our worship looks forward to Christ’s coming on three levels:

  • First, the hope of the people of Israel for a Messiah to redeem them from suffering and slavery;
  • Second, the expectation of Mary (and anxiety of Joseph) as they prepared for Jesus’ birth;
  • Third, our own hope for the return of Christ in glory at the end of time to finish the work of restoring all things and returning them to the Father.

You won’t hear much about any of those in the ads for Christmas goodies.  For true wisdom, we need to pay attention to the message of our Church in its worship.  We need to learn by following its rhythms, not the culture’s. And for that we need to make space so we can pay attention.  It’s not just a matter of inner attitude; we’ll need to make some practical choices if Advent is going to speak to us and deepen our connection to Christ.  

I know it’s impossible to participate in Christmas festivities “the way it’s done (in the culture)” without doing some preparation during Advent – shopping, maybe cooking, decorating.  So how about trying to “compartmentalize” those activities?  Give them time, but draw clear boundaries between “preparing for Christmas” and “living in Advent”?  That would guarantee that Advent got at least some time and attention.

Environment also matters.  How about not putting up Christmas decorations at home (much less lighting them) until the evening of December 24th (or at least as close to Christmas as practicable)? Instead, the Advent wreath is an old custom many have revived that is an appropriate household decoration for a Catholic home.  

(Incidentally, the Christmas Season in the liturgy lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord – this year, January 9th.  What about leaving Christmas decorations up, and lights on, until then? Stores will “end” Christmas on December 26th; the Church is only getting started with the celebrations at that point.  Don’t let the culture around us set your own and your household’s clock.)

And what about music?  Radio and stores will be full of “Christmas” music now, but a Catholic home shouldn’t be.  Christmas music belongs at Christmas: starting on the night of December 24th, and going through Epiphany (this year, January 8th).  

As a bit of personal opinion, I think the shift of the secular culture away from calling this season and its big day “Christmas” and toward “holiday” or “winter festival” or the like is a good thing on at least two levels: first, we are in fact a secular culture and shouldn’t intentionally exclude others who celebrate at this time with different meanings from ours.  That’s common courtesy. The store that tells its employees to say “holiday” is conceivably being more fair than one that insists on “Christmas.”  But more important, this shift can demonstrate to us that we need to reclaim the distinctively Christian meaning of the feast for ourselves and our fellow-believers.  “Keep Christ in Christmas” is exactly the right attitude for Christians: and we’re more likely to do that if we stop wishing that nonbelievers would follow our customs.  We have work to do ourselves.  And keeping Advent is no small part of that work.

A professor of liturgy who taught me had the custom of not sending his Christmas cards out until Christmas day.  I thought it was odd at the time, but I’ve come to realize he was onto something.  Our liturgy wants to educate us, to make us more like Christ in ways we may not consider important until we see their effects over the years.  Don’t miss out on Advent this year; you’ll be the poorer for it.  Until next week, peace.