My Back Pages: Forgetting Advent

(Note: I wrote this column for The Daily in November 2011. It is no longer extant, so I am republishing it here).

Black Friday kicked off the “holiday season” last week. The pumpkin-flavored pastries and beverages have already given way to eggnog and gingerbread, while lite-music radio will be in full Noel mode until Christmas. But in church, the sound of sleigh bells will not be ring-ring-ringing for a little while yet.

Easily missed in this flurry of transition is what I’m tempted to call “Blue Sunday,” or the first Sunday in Advent. For Christians who worship in the Roman Catholic and historic Protestant churches, it is the beginning of a new year, marked with blue liturgical decorations, the lighting of candles and music filled with solemn expectation.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” the prophet Isaiah beseeches God in the lesson many churchgoers hear this morning.

Welcome to the forgotten season of Advent, the four-week period leading up to Christmas when the church is rather flagrantly at odds with what goes on outside her doors. It is not as ancient or as somber a season as Lent, but for well over a millennium it has been a time to stir up piety, meditate on the coming of Christ and ponder the end of all things — up until Christmas Eve, at least, which in the past marked the beginning of 12 days of excess and revelry.

Because Advent’s traditional Bible readings provide a strong counterpoint to such indulgence, they remain relevant to our current holiday season with its gala fundraisers and office parties.

The Bible lessons for Sundays in Advent focus on prophecy, both grave and joyous. We hear Jesus warn in the Gospel of Matthew that, in the days of Noah, people were eating and drinking and marrying until they were taken by surprise in the flood. The lesson is that trials will always come amid life’s pleasures and distractions.

While people display crèches as visible gestures of Christian identity, Isaiah laments to God, “Because you hid yourself, we transgressed” — reminding the faithful that God cannot be put on display for our own purposes.

While we ransack stores for the year’s must-have toys and games, Isaiah imagines children playing in a new world entirely: “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp” — a poisonous snake — “and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den,” because “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

The teachings seem meant to measure the smallness of our aspirations and the heedlessness in which we often live. Advent is not about gloom and doom, but its stories and songs give voice to the world’s radical incompleteness, its yearning, its anticipation.

So when “war on Christmas” stories crop up in another new and regrettable holiday tradition, I wonder whether we shouldn’t be lamenting the eclipse of Advent instead. After all, if Christians are fretting over what words store clerks use to greet shoppers, we’ve already missed a great deal of what this time of year is supposed to be about.

On the other hand, the five-year-old Advent Conspiracy movement has tried to restore the character of the season by encouraging Christians to spend less money on gifts and more time with the people they love and give the money subsequently saved to clean-water projects in the developing world. This largely evangelical movement to make Christmas “a revolutionary event” has found echoes in other Christian traditions that feel estranged from our most successful holiday. The Conspiracy and its fellow travelers encourage Christians to bear witness to our faith rather than to our worries about multiculturalism, our unending cravings or anxieties about status.

That’s not to say that we don’t need a sanctioned time to have parties, decorate our homes and show some generosity to loved ones — even if that generosity finds expression in Xbox units. Our (already weak) economy relies on this seasonal spending spree, and the year would be dreary indeed if it were broken up only by tax filing and patriotic cookouts.

But this semi-mandatory period of celebration and good cheer doesn’t heal life’s ordinary wounds. Indeed, it can aggravate them. It’s a famously difficult time of year if you’re hurting financially, grieving the fresh loss of a loved one or just susceptible to depression.

That’s why Advent still has something to say to us. In “For the Time Being,” his cycle of poems on the Advent and Christmas story, W. H. Auden gives us a modern glimpse of the Bethlehem shepherds just before the skies are filled with the heavenly host telling them about the baby and the manger. They could be disillusioned 99-percenters, lonely soldiers in Afghanistan or retail employees exhausted by the madness of Black Friday because their boredom, frustration and clock watching are perennial.

“What is real / About us all is that each of us is waiting,” Auden imagines them saying. “We know that something / Will happen: what we cannot say … But one day or / The next we shall hear the Good News.”

In a season of gaiety, real or feigned, sometimes what you really need is hope.

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