Thursday, Second Week in Advent
"When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
-- Matthew 2:10-11
A few Advents ago, the rector of my home church, fed up with the perceived commercialism of our holiday season, made us all an interesting proposition one Sunday:
Considering, he said, that we know Christ wasn’t really born on December 25th anyway, what would it be like if instead of building up to the holiday season every year, the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury or some other high official in Christendom simply announced at a random time every year: “In twenty-four hours it will be Christmas Eve! Do what you can to get ready!”
I mentioned that Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25th; why, then, do we remember His birth at this time? This is cultural baggage that we have acquired from the Romans. At this time in December every year, the ancients celebrated a holiday known as the Saturnalia, a topsy-turvy time with bizarre rituals in which masters became slaves and slaves became masters. Seeking to redirect the festive energies of paganism into something more positive, the early church placed Christ’s birth on the Saturnalia, which is when we have celebrated it ever since. Perhaps it is only appropriate that a Roman holiday where class distinctions are overturned should be replaced by a Christian celebration in which the Ruler of the Universe lowers Himself to be born by a mortal woman into humble stable. Perhaps it is only fitting that on a day when masters become slaves and slaves masters, that poor shepherds watching their flocks by night should be the first to learn of the birth of a King, and that earthly kings themselves should come and do homage to the son of a modest Jewish carpenter.
In this age, we have replaced the Roman secular craziness and the mind-bending Christian theology with our own holiday hullabaloo. Instead of taking time to reflect at the beginning of this season, thousands of us will jump out of bed at ungodly times, lining up outside stores for hours, unafraid when the establishment of our choice opens to inadvertently injure or even kill fellow patrons in an effort to secure the best deals for ourselves. Instead of considering the true needs of our fellow men, we pile up presents for our friends and relatives that they certainly don’t need and may not even want. But surely, we live in more enlightened times!
Is this what our culture has come to? Is this what we truly value? Do we really live in a time where the holiday season has become so corrupted and so contrary to its own purpose that we would really be better off, as my rector suggested, abolishing it altogether?
Do we want Advent anymore? Do we need Advent anymore? Are we best served getting rid of the whole thing? Who really needs Advent, anyway?
Our word Advent comes from the Latin verb ‘advenio’ meaning ‘to advance’ or ‘to approach’; another cultural reminder of how much we owe the Romans. In the Church tradition, each significant holiday has both a time leading up to it and a time after it; a sort of warming up and winding down. Christmas is no exception. Our current picture of Christmas is no different, but our priorities are; instead of considering the great centuries of effort and the countless men and women who died in the pregnant expectation of the birth of Christ that they knew would come, but they knew not when –we have replaced that beautiful image with an endless to-do list, a never-ending drive to buy the gifts, to find the perfect tree, to make sure everything is just so when the friends and family come.
Christians should not blame the pessimistic Grinches of the world for failing to see anything magical or religious in the spirit of Christmas; we should blame ourselves, and consider how short we have fallen of Christ’s charge to be living examples of His word, placing a priority on the pragmatic concerns of this world rather than the deeper purpose we were all built for.
This Advent, I charge us all to return to the true spirit of Christmas, and indeed the true spirit of what it means to be a Christian. Let us all take pause from our hectic lives to consider what it truly is that we are preparing for. Let us pause to consider the wondrous love of Christ, the love that led Him to abandon His throne above not just to the joy of His birth but to the agony of His death. Let us pause in the mystery of the first words of the Gospel of John, who, though he includes no secular nativity for Christ, nevertheless gives us a view of his spiritual beginnings: “In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
In order to see that light we must come out of the darkness. In order to savor the triumph we must appreciate the struggle. For nothing worth having ever came without struggle. Just as to find our lives we must lose them, we must let go of all the material baggage that we fear to lose to find what it is we are truly born to be. Before he can run, a child must walk; before he can walk, he must stand. And if we are to stand in the true wonder, the true magic and meaning, the true mystery and love of what Christmas truly means, we must, first and always, slow down, and remember who we are, and how we got here.
-- Dylan Thayer '13