Most people have a favorite religious holiday – often prompted by memories connected with it. On the other hand, how many people have a least favorite season or holiday? My guess is that people’s least favorite season is Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.
After all, Advent challenges us – and our impatience! Advent asks us to do something we resist. It asks us to delay celebrating Christmas, and instead concentrate on the demanding task of serious religious preparation for it. Trouble is, we’re not very patient – especially not in delaying celebrations. We want to move ahead with all the trappings of the Christian holiday. In our haste, we don’t prepare for it adequately.
The Bible invites us to the discipline of patient spiritual preparation. The Old Testament book of Isaiah tells how carefully God prepared for God’s coming to us in human form. St. Paul talks about Jesus coming to us “in the fulness of time,” something for which God had prepared over many generations. Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:2-3) echoes the Old Testament words about God’s patient preparation for Christ’s coming. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
To some extent we’re aware of this. Indeed, many persons lament the commercial emphasis on Christmas, which begins earlier and earlier every year. But alas, we can’t get off scot-free.
There are various ways we can be guilty (perhaps unintentionally) of diminishing our need for spiritual preparation for Christmas – before we try to celebrate the meaning of Christ’s birth:
• How few take time to think of these Advent weeks as a time to reflect on our spiritual needs for the coming of Jesus.
• Note how impatient we can be if the pastor is reluctant to sing Christmas carols before Christmas.
• Think about how quickly we move on to other emphases once Dec. 26 arrives.
Our reluctance to invest serious thought into Advent is understandable. After all, it asks us to reflect on the pains, the failures, the needs that we have individually, that we face as a society. The importance of Jesus as a gift from God is enhanced if we can admit the limitations and imperfections of our lives. The potential for Christ to make a difference in our world depends – to a significant extent – on the honesty of our inventory of society’s ills and immoralities. Even the word “immoralities” can prompt defensiveness. Understandably so!
Yes, part of us wants/expects God to make a difference in our troubled, fractured world. It isn’t enough, however, to expect God to change the hard-heartedness of our political opponents if we’re not ready to understand our own stubborn culpability in such divisiveness.
Our prayers for relief from COVID will be impotent if we’re reluctant to be responsible in following medical protocols. Our lament about our nation’s lingering racism becomes hollow if we’re unable to look inside our own thinking to see and root out the traces of racism remaining there.
Advent’s potential depends on our deep and honest inventory of needs arising from our all too human imperfections. That inventory is linked to Advent’s rehearsal of the struggle of our spiritual ancestors as they awaited the coming of the Messiah.
There’s a wealth of Bible passages and Advent hymns we can use during this season. Such become beacons along the way. They prompt us to delay celebrating – until we have come to the full realization of how utterly important is the birth of Jesus, how profoundly we need that Christ in our lives.
Rev. William McCartney is a retired United Methodist minister and a professor emeritus of the Methodist Theological School.