Lo! In the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ‘ere was lost or lorn
Could but thy soul O man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright
It may surprise you to learn that the Church has seasons. There is a rhythm to worship and spiritual growth in the Old Testament; certain days of the year were marked by feasting and others by times of repentance. These often correspond- rather poetically- to the actual seasons of nature- i.e. the changing of the leaves in Autumn, the slumber of trees in Winter, the explosive growth and new birth of Spring, and the joy of harvest in Summer were connected to the feasts of Tabernacles, day of Atonement, Passover, and Pentecost etc. The juxtaposition between the original sense of the season and the current manifestation in Western culture has gotten me thinking.
To say “the nature of the Christmas Season is different than its roots” would be an incredible understatement. To put it bluntly, there is no meaningful day of religious observance that advocates mass acquisition and consumerism. The marks of the season have become simply holiday drinks at Starbucks and a deluge of marketing. Please do not misunderstand me, I am not expounding on the old evangelical adage “we need to put the Christ back in Christmas.” Others have taken up that cause and I have little to add to the matter. I have nothing against the giving of gifts to family and friends and businesses indeed need to make a living but I think it is interesting to consider the beginning of the season.
Historically speaking the phrase “Christmas Season” refers to “Advent,” something of which many have only vague knowledge, if any at all. The word Advent literally means “arriving” and the arrival in question is that of Jesus at Christmas. It began with the Gauls in Spain in the 5th century or so as a way of helping new converts to Christianity prepare for baptism on the day of Epiphany. The season lasted about 40 days and was marked not by acquisition but by fasting, spiritual growth and a deep seeking after repentance.
Advent then is individual and corporate preparation of Christians for the coming of Christ. This of course refers to the symbolic coming of Jesus at Christmas so long ago; but also the very real belief in a return of Christ at some point in the future. Since this return could happen at any moment, Advent becomes a reminder for us that we need to become a people *prepared* for the coming of The Lord.
To paraphrase Meister Eckhart (13 century) “what good is the Advent of Christ at Christmas if He doesn’t Advent in me?” That is what the season of Christmas is for, to prepare our hearts for a new birth. Jesus was born into miserable surroundings so long ago, something that seems appropriate when I consider that I need him to be born in me. The first Advent was such a momentous, remarkable world changing event that we would miss its significance without a season of preparation before hand. It also reminds us that the next advent will be even more so and thus we must call out to one another “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
None of this is to say that we should be somber during the Christmas time, just aware. Christmas should indeed be marked by great Joy and the giving of gifts, since Joy himself has come as a great Gift to the world. It often intrigues me that some of my neighbors, who would disdain much of the content of scripture, would celebrate such an overtly Christian holiday. Perhaps there is some subtle trick in reality that causes even those who don’t particularly care for Jesus to enjoy celebrating his arrival on the scene of human history. May the community of people who celebrates the coming of Christ continue to grow! May we see the birth of something new this Christmas!