I’ve always wanted to write some thoughts about Advent but can never find the time in the month of December. Too busy! Here’s some non-seasonally appropriate content for today.
I hate to admit but I’m always taken off guard by the season of Advent. Every year I begin the season with determination to wait in hope, but by the middle of the month of December, the high expectations I perceive from congregation, those that I place on myself as a church musician, and on top of a ton of extra hours of work when I’d rather be spending time with my family, I find myself worn down.
Is the purpose of Advent, as Fleming Rutledge believes, to “take an unflinching inventory of darkness” (pg. 173)? She sternly warns against seeing Advent as a time to ‘prepare for Christmas,’ and urges the church to fully enter into the darkness to see just how bright the light of Christ is. The medieval church did not focus on Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love like we do today, but rather death, judgment, heaven, and hell. “The idea was—and is—to show how the light of the birth of Christ appeared against a backdrop of darkness, depravity, and despair” (pg. 238).
But is the Medieval church right? I can’t imagine the looks I’d get from our staff and congregation if I urged us to consider swapping in death, judgement, heaven, and hell for our advent candle themes. It seems exactly opposite what people want to be focusing on during the holidays.
In grad school I was taught to keep Advent distinct from Christmas, and to resist the hurrying of the cultural Christmas season spurred on by commercialism and consumerism. I can’t help but agree – there seems to be little focus in December about Christ’s second coming.
Let’s take a step back for a second. Should, at certain times, the church focus on the future coming of Christ and the coming judgement of the world? If it’s in the creed, which it is (He shall come again to judge the living and the dead), then I believe the answer is yes.
But how? Preaching of ‘hellfire and brimstone’ is today a trope on how not to preach. And speaking of darkness seems not only unnecessary, but not required – we all know there is darkness in the world. We can’t avoid it. We don’t need to be reminded. A whole month of darkness, hellfire, judgement, during our culture’s most joyful time of the year doesn’t seem counter-cultural in a good way, but paints the church as a grinch who doesn’t want any joy.
But perhaps since the culture is well aware of the darkness all around us, I have a feeling that it would be very different and quite possibly very powerful, to shepherd the church by actually helping us consider these “four final things” of death, judgement, heaven, and hell in the light of Christ’s second coming. If we begin (and Advent is in fact the beginning of the church year) with the end in mind (Christ’s second coming) we frame all those nasty things in between in light of his victory. To prepare we must be looking at Christ more closely – remembering how we place our “hopes and fears of all the years” in him and him alone.
But how we prepare is equally important. Rutledge warns that an emphasis on ‘preparation’ is that preparation puts the emphasis of the season on human effort rather than God’s mighty work. I have heard this from parishioners. We need help ‘keeping Christ in Christmas,’ just like the secular world does. If we constantly feel the coming of Christmas as “stress with a deadline” than a season of preparing to receive joy, we’re missing the point. In fact, the gift giving should really be saved for Epiphany! What we want to do is treasure the gift of Jesus. Let every heart prepare him room!