If December marks the season of Advent, November (or the end of October) is set aside as the season of complaining about Advent. There are practical complaints like, “Why are purple and pink taper candles so difficult to find?” or, “Why can’t I get people to hold off on the Christmas hymns until December 24?” And then there are more esoteric complaints like, “I can’t get people to wait for the joy of Christmas because they are so consumed by cultural Christmas happiness: gift-buying, Hallmark movie watching, and twinkly lights.”
When the conversation about Advent first kicks off every year, there’s grumbling, mumbling, even frustration and anger. If Advent was a computer, I would recommend that we try turning it off and back on again. Perhaps some process running behind the scenes has frozen up. Maybe some critical something is no longer responding. It might be that if we end task, or press ctrl+alt+delete on the whole thing, we can reboot Advent and rediscover what it’s supposed to be all about.
- We need to reboot our expectations for Advent. A New Year’s Resolution cannot undo years’ long bad habits overnight, and Advent cannot cure us of our impatience, our materialism, or our selfishness in four, easy weeks. Advent is an opportunity to reflect more deeply on hope, peace, joy, and love as we try to live into them more fully every day. It won’t cure us of everything that ails us. This won’t change no matter how much pressure we put on ourselves to craft the perfect Advent series or work to incorporate Advent into our daily lives. We need to take ourselves off the hook whether we are planning Advent services or attending them. Advent won’t save us. It wasn’t intended to!
- Christmas carols aren’t the enemy. They really aren’t! Singing “Joy to the World” on Advent 1 doesn’t mean we’ve failed to live Advent lives. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for Advent hymns, and there are many beautiful ones that are only sung once a year. I’d hate for us to skip them. But, the “success” of Advent doesn’t hinge on whether or not we made it through the season without singing any Christmas carols. Think about it: Advent means “coming,” and Jesus has already come once. (Yes, he’s still coming again, but we’ll get to that in #3.) The enemy of Advent isn’t Christmas carols. If Advent’s purpose is to lead us with intentional steps into the hope and joy of Christ, the enemy of that wouldn’t be joyful songs, but instead an attitude of resignation and despair.
- The Tension is part of the process. Jesus has already come once, so there is joy and hope. But, Jesus is also returning and we are still waiting, so there is longing and impatience. All of the debates about the usefulness of Advent, or the importance of waiting for Christmas until December 25 highlight the tension that Advent is all about. In seminary, a phrase that was used over and over was “live into the tension.” The phrase was used so often that we sometimes rolled our eyes when others said it. Yet, it was and is true. Advent hurts sometimes because we live in that place of tension. We long for joy, and so we celebrate. But, that celebration is punctuated with sadness because things are not as they are supposed to be.
- We need to end task the guilt process. As a child, I sometimes wondered if the goal of church in December was to make me feel bad for enjoying cultural aspects of Christmas. “Find joy – but not joy in that!” And, I get it to an extent. The birth of Jesus has pretty much nothing to do with Christmas trees, hot chocolate, cheesy Christmas movies, or lights draped across the eaves. But, that doesn’t mean it is wrong to enjoy those movies, or look forward to the lights, or delight in sending cards and getting that family picture by the fireplace. Lasting joy in Christ does not mean we cannot find happiness or enjoyment in anything else in this world. If Advent has a guilt process running in the background, let’s shut that thing down and try again.
Two years ago, I began the Anti-Advent project (not “anti” as in against, but “anti” as in opposite). For the four weeks of Advent, I sat with the themes for each week and I wondered what life would be like if each theme’s opposites were all there was. This exercise was powerful for me, and I found myself receiving the gifts of hope, peace, joy, and love in ways I never had before. In giving myself the space to acknowledge resignation, separation, cynicism, and fear, I was able to see the good news of hope, peace, joy, and love. But, it took sitting in the darkness before I was able to see and experience the light.
The thing about Advent is that it’s imperfect, just like we are. We can experience Christmas without Advent. Advent isn’t necessary, but Advent is an opportunity. The biggest barriers in my life to experiencing joy are almost all related to my own impatience, my own perfectionism, my own terrible inner critic. Advent invites me to set those things aside, and to move in step with liturgical time for a while, rather than the relentless ticking of the productivity clock.
If Advent’s not for you, that’s okay. I have found it to be a helpful and healing practice for me, but it’s not the Gospel. But, for myself, when Advent seemed to be broken for me a couple of years ago, it helped me to give it a reboot. Perhaps shutting down a broken Advent can help us reboot something that invites us to experience the joy that has always been there, we just had too many things running in the background to notice.