Wednesday, December 07, 2011


I love Advent.

Liturgically, it is the most "interesting" season of the year. It has a shape that is completely irrational, but, somehow, when it all plays out, works beautifully. We begin at the end, with eschatology, Last Things. Then we're shot as though from a sling into a strange bifurcated dimension of time, with one foot in the messianic prophecies of Isaiah, and the other in the "rude and crude" figure of John the Baptist, preaching on the eve of the adult Jesus' debut into public life. Finally, on the fourth Sunday, we step back another thirty years or so to overhear the angel Gabriel's utterly outside-the-box exchanges with the Virgin Mary (Years B and C) and Joseph (Year A). It's a strange ride, but at that point we're actually ready for Christmas.

Spiritually, Advent is particularly compelling because it's so honestly real. It's about waiting and hoping and preparing, all in the context of simultaneous repenting and rejoicing. Doesn't that sound pretty much like ... life? The passage of a human soul through this world is one long Advent. The spiritual observance of a four week season each year never fails to connect me more deeply to some aspect of my "real" life that is very Advent-like, very much about waiting and hoping and preparing in an environment of simultaneous repenting and rejoicing.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is the degree to which Advent clashes with the larger culture's observance--both secular and religious--of the season, the "holidays." It makes me more than a little crabby, which gives me that much more to repent of!

There are two dimensions to this clash. The first, ironically, is with the premature Christian celebration of Christmas. "Back in the day," the weeks before Christmas were a time of preparation and joyful anticipation, but not of unrestrained celebration. That was saved for the actual arrival of actual Christmas, which then ushered in a twelve day period of festivity, concluding with the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. Now, even Christians, even liturgical Christians when they are outside a church building, tend to think of December as "the Christmas season." I've pretty much given up trying to actively resist this, but it does make me sad, because it creates an incoherence between what we do in church these four Sundays and what we do when we're out of church, and because we've lost something very beautiful. (For the record, I primarily blame the retailing industry for this.)

The other dimension is more obvious: We're now seriously into a post-Christian era in western developed society. There is a rapidly diminishing attachment to the notion of "Jesus is the reason for the season." Yet, there remains a critical mass of desire to keep this time of year somehow "special," and there is an array of cultural and economic forces lined up to fulfill that desire. Our society cherishes the echo of Christmas, the shadow of Christmas, if not Christmas itself. But if all you're after is a dose of nostalgia, a sentimentalized illusion of what once was, precision in timing is not so critical, and Advent gets quickly lost in the shuffle.

Like I said, this all makes me sad. And I try to avoid all that ... stuff ... as much as I can, which is to say, not very successfully. I have a completely Advent-compliant playlist in iTunes (including some wonderful choral settings of the Great O Antiphons), but it's generally not stuff most people would think of as very ... seasonal. And I really do try not to shame anybody who sees things differently. "Try" is the operative word here!

In the meantime, here's the Magnificat Antiphon for Advent, up until the 16th, when the O Antiphons take over: "Drop down, you heavens, from above; and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let it bring forth salvation."


John Richmond said...

This perhaps pales in comparison with greater issues of commercialism, the entire business (literally, I suppose, vis-a-vis commercialism) of "the Christmas season," et al., but...the Advent hymns are among my favorites. When I hear congregations--including ones that are at least semi-musical--mumble their way through "Helmsley," I wonder how such mumbling, passing as singing, can be. Magnificent stuff, and we have a mere four weeks in which to shoehorn the seasonal hymns into our liturgies.

Victorian Barbarian said...
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Victorian Barbarian said...

But don't you think that the intense, joyful, and excited anticipation we learn as children waiting for the night Santa comes (which underlies much of the secular Xmas season) is a natural preparation for the more mature expectation (joy and awe) of the advent of Christ, both to Bethlehem and at Second Coming? If only every cleric who scrooged his irritation from the pulpit would expend that energy in shepherding that transformation from the self-centered anticipation of childhood to the God-directed anticipation of maturity! Don't preach against Santa and Xmas; teach us so that it all reminds us how our God took up life as a little babe to redeem the whole world.