Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Hustle and Bustle of the Season
Yesterday was “Black Friday” and the Christmas festivities in our culture have officially started. However, we all know that the commercial Christmas hustle and bustle began back in October. Retailers like Wal Mart, Target and most outlets already had their Christmas shops setup and ready to go before Halloween.
Now, we are off to the retail races, and there is a mad dash to buy, wrap, and feast as much as possible until December 26th when ironically, it all stops. Exhausted, 20 lbs heavier, and credit cards maxed out, some people will enter a post-holiday depression regretting and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad that is over for another year.”
We clergy encourage people to not fall for the ploy of pre-Christmas chaos. However, it is so difficult for many of us is to live in both worlds. It is not easy to follow the traditions of the church in here, and then go out there and live differently. We Christians though, by the very nature of our vocation are sent out there to live a life of transformation, contrast, and anticipation to that of the world, and the season of Advent gives us an opportunity to do just that.
The Haven of Anticipation – Advent
When the world stops celebrating on December 26th, we Episcopalians until January 6th will still be celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ for another 12 days. When everyone else stops saying, “Merry Christmas” and starts saying “Happy New Year,” we will still sing Christmas Carols on Saturday and Sunday, enjoy a decorated Christmas Tree in the parish hall, and joyfully commemorate the gift of salvation given to us in Jesus Christ. Our culture has already started the celebration, but the church has not quite yet. We are still in Advent season.
Advent is kind of like a little fast before Christmas, but that is not necessarily a negative thing if you think about it. Advent observed properly serves as a haven of anticipation of the “Coming of Christ” both as a “Babe in the Manger” and the anticipation of when Christ returns. The church’s observance of Advent stands in absolute contrast to the chaos of world out there.
For instance, we adorn the sanctuary with purple altar hangings and vestments, and there is no red and green to be found. We bring out the Advent candle for decoration, but there is no decorated and trimmed evergreen in the church. We sing particular hymns and read certain readings, but there is no mention of the babe in a manger, at least it yet. We live merely in the anticipation of the coming of Christ, both as a babe and his second coming in some future time.
While everyone else is clamoring for those Black Friday door busters, running around for those last minute gift purchases, attending just one more “over the top” festive party, the church is a haven where we can shut out the holiday noise, and live in expectancy the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is yet to come. However, maybe we are afraid of observing a Holy Advent. We forget the Advent calendar and Advent wreath in our homes and go straight to the Christmas decorations in our homes. Maybe we think we might miss the season if we do that. Maybe we are afraid people might think we are a Scrooge if we did not buy into the pre-Christmas chaos.
Scrooge and Christmas
Ebenezer Scrooge the main character of Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” was a mean, money-grubbing man who cared only for his wealth, and dismissed all possibility of friends in this life. He detested peaceful and joyful people in particular, and rejected the season of Christmas with the joy, peace, and hope it brought to the world. When someone said, “Merry Christmas” to old Scrooge, he huffed and replied, “bah humbug.” For some reason, some folks think that to observe Advent means we are being an Old Scrooge.
During the Advent season, one of my professors in seminary wore a top hat similar to that of Ebenezer Scrooge to our weekly community dinners. He would tell us that his top hat served as a reminder to each seminarian that we Episcopalians must observe a Holy Advent. He told us we needed to live in the world and yet, be set apart from it. To drive the point home, on my professor’s office door was a sign with a picture of beautifully decorated home that proclaimed, “take them down, leave them down until December 25th, says old Ebenezer.” My professors practice may have been over the top, but even he, in the last few weeks of Advent, snuck in a little Christmas decoration or two on his office door. I think he did that to remind us that we Christians, who although must be separate from the world, must live in both worlds all the time, even in Advent.
Maybe you are sitting there saying, “Fr. Eric, can’t we have a little eggnog, decorate our tree a little early, throw a party or two, go buy some gifts, and can’t we wear that awful Christmas sweater we love so much?” Of course we can, because we are anticipating the “Coming of the Blessed Lord of Our lives,” and we definitely are not Ebenezer Scrooges after all. Our tradition does not call us to live in stark rejection of the world we live in, but it merely gives us a chance to look at this time differently than we have in the past. I wonder what would happen if we became aware of this interrupted time of Advent, would we find in it some space for a haven of anticipation and peace, in a world of utter commercial chaos? Advent is not a season for just being “different” from everyone else, because this season reminds us that there is more to this whole story of Christmas after all.
Christ is Coming Again – Readiness
Our gospel reading today tells us what that more will be, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” In Advent we certainly anticipate the coming of the Babe in the Manger, but we also anticipate Christ’s return, when “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” That second coming again part for some of us may seem full of trepidation, rather than hopeful and joyful. Maybe we do not even think about it all. Maybe it seems like a fantasy or a good, “Left Behind” book.
Is it because we are not really ready, or we have not prepared, or we do not live in that anticipated reality. We are too busy clamoring to meet the world’s expectations of success and celebratory joy, in order to take just a moment in prayer each day to praise God. We are too busy decorating the windows of our lives, to spend some time embellishing the dark places of our souls with God’s grace. Maybe we are not ready because we are afraid of what Jesus will think when we stand before him and we reflect on the life we lived.
What if we looked rather at Christ’s return with hope and peace. It is easy to do, if each day you would carve out some intentional interruptions to offer to God some of your time. Let God’s grace fill you as you intentionally reflect on him and his love, and speak to God as you would with any friend. Read a little scripture and meditate on it for a while. Go out into the world and rejoice in the power of the Spirit and share some of that newfound joy with others. Imagine interrupting the mundane cycle of life and the expectations of this world, in order to spend some time with Jesus.
That is what the seasonality of the church does. It intentionally interrupts the worldly cycle we live in, and reminds us that we are following the life of Jesus each and every day. Let me explain. Advent is the age of anticipation foretold by the prophets, of the expected Messiah to come. Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation, the moment when God came among us as one of us. Epiphany is the revelation of Christ to we Gentiles through the Wise visitors from afar. Lent prepares our hearts for the Good News of the cross. Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit came and the church was set on its mission. We then begin the cycle all over again. Maybe the whole reason for Advent is so we might pause, shift time a little, and reflect on this walk we have with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Scrooge Needed Advent
Advent is not some churchy alternative to the hustle of the world, nor is it a season where we are required to shelve our Hallmark Christmas moments until December 25th. Advent is a time for us to become quiet, to become prayerful, and to become ready for the reality that Christ is coming among us as a Babe in a Manger, and his eventual coming again in great power and judgment. The whole point of Advent is not that we church people might act like Scrooges, but so we can pause and be transformed
When visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge had already spent time with the other two apparitions looking at the events of his life. He looked back on how he had spent his life with others and how he was living life in the present. Yes, he had some regrets, but in that reflection time, he was being transformed. To the last apparition, Scrooge said, “Ghost of the Future, I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.” Scrooge left his repetitive cycle of monetary focus and self-indulgent musings and was interrupted by a time of reflecting on the person he had become. Maybe that is what Advent can be for us. A time of awaiting the future return of Our Lord, while spending some time intentionally getting ready for that day.
Before Scrooge celebrated Christmas with his family and gifted the best Christmas ever to Tiny Tim and his family, transformed he said, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.’’ Scrooge was converted and made ready for the future, through an unexpected, but intentional interruption in his life.
So, I encourage you to do the same, and take advantage of Advent, this haven of anticipation where you can reflect, pray, and rest. Come to the Advent retreat with me next Saturday, join the Advent reflections after the 9:30 am service in the library, or merely take on some spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting over the next few weeks. I encourage you to observe Advent season and live in anticipation of the coming of Christ. Honor Christmas by reflecting on your past, live fully into your present, and anticipate joyfully the peace and grace you will see when Christ comes again.
- “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.