Christmas needs Advent

Rev. William A. McCartney

When I was a child in the 1930s, Christmas didn’t come – until Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, we put the bare Christmas tree in a bucket of sand and placed it on a 4×8 piece of plywood that also would house the train display. Then we children went to bed.

Overnight Santa came, decorated the tree, laid out the train display with its houses, etc., and put the presents by the tree. Looking back I don’t know how our parents did it. But it did mean we celebrated the holiday on the “right side” of Christmas.

Today virtually all Christmas celebrations come before hand. Christmas ads begin by early November; Christmas Carols are heard constantly from Thanksgiving on — and stop abruptly on Christmas; Christmas parties are jammed into a few weeks in December. All this means most everyone is ready to “move on” as soon as Christmas day has passed. Note how soon after Christmas used Christmas trees are on tree lawns awaiting pick-up.

Oh how we lament the “commercialization” of Christmas that seems to obscure the real meaning of the holiday. It seems the world has failed to “keep Christ in Christmas.”

Perhaps we need to take another look at this “problem.” Maybe it’s not commercialism that distorts the holiday’s holy meaning. Maybe it’s our own spiritual impatience!

How ironic! The Christian calendar tries to “protect” us from ourselves by giving us Advent. Advent encompasses the 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas. It’s the time of thoughtful, spiritual reflection on our need for Christmas, on God’s preparation for the coming of Christ. Advent tries to make the spirit of Christmas more meaningful, more powerful. Alas, we’re impatient to celebrate Christmas.

We need to remember the world into which Christ came. Christ came as God’s gift for all God’s people – the generations of people who had sought to follow the one God. Unfortunately, their road was not always easy. It was marked by times of faithfulness – and times of faithlessness. It was marked by times of sharpened understanding of God — and times of uncertainty. It was marked by times of security – and times of being oppressed and depressed.

In response, God sent Christ to complete the revelation of God’s loving intention for God’s people. God sent Christ to perfect the relationship between God and God’s people. But in order to understand and assimilate this completely, the people had to go through some of the darkest, emptiest times of their individual and communal lives. Only by understanding that darkness, could they appreciate fully the profound character and significance of Jesus’ coming.

I’m convinced the same is true for us. We can comprehend fully the power of Jesus’ birth – only if we’re able to understand the depth of our need for God’s living presence embodied in the Christ child. We may enjoy looking forward to whatever tangible gifts come to you at Christmas — but true transformation of our lives comes only as we look back and acknowledge the imperfections of our personal lives and the selfish incivility of our communal lives — such as we saw in our recent Presidential campaign.

Advent provides the opportunity — the honesty — to look at our deep and profound need for Christ through the lense of the times leading up to Jesus’ birth. We benefit by seeing our spiritual ancestors reflected in our own selfishness, our own insensitivity to the needs of others, our own arrogant encounters with others, be they “friend or foe.”

If we want to appreciate Christmas fully, if we want to celebrate God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, if we want to assimilate God’s transformative power, then we need to journey through Advent — as it was intended. Then we can be prepared to welcome the baby Jesus on Christmas, and grow in his power and love in the times that follow.

Rev. William A. McCartney