Elsewhere I’ve spoken of the need to save advent from Christmas. Here I want to help us think about Advent saving Christmas. We are presently two weeks into Advent. The first week the gospel reading was an apocalyptic passage from Luke 21, and this last Sunday had us hearing about John the Baptist. This Sunday doesn’t let up, with a prickly message from John that doesn’t really let us settle into the usual ‘Christmas spirit.’ Instead these passages are confronting, insisting that we pay attention to what is wrong around us and what is wrong within us, and to ready ourselves for God’s coming to redeem.
We are most familiar with Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas. We are used to hearing stories about Zechariah and Elizabeth, about Mary and angels, about (sometimes) John the Baptist ‘preparing the way’. We are ready to be reminded of the wonder of the Sovereign Creator of the Universe, born in the covered yards and laid in a feeding trough. But these confronting, apocalyptic stories, at the start of the Christian year, don’t really let us go there. Oh! They know we want to! And they know we will, but they want us to understand something first. These stories want us to understand that our remembering is not just remembering. It’s not just about what happened, but it’s about what is happening and what will happen.
Christmas is not about ‘then’, it’s about ‘now’. Advent keeps this front and centre.
Without Advent, Christmas slips into nostalgia. Without the sharp-edged insight of Advent: that this world needs Jesus to come right now – Christmas gets hijacked by a misty-eyed sort of remembering. A whole, strange storyline grows up around the Christmas narrative: with roaring fires, terrible knitted jumpers and ‘yule-tide cheer’ – whatever the heck that is. Saint Nicholas ceases to be the quiet revolutionary that he was, and he morphs into Santa Claus, the very embodiment of ‘the man’ as he rewards those who have conformed, and punishes those who have strayed. How ironic, given that Saint Nicholas ‘strayed’ from the societal norms when he secretly gave gold to an impoverished family so their daughters might have good marriages rather than be sold into slavery! Saint Nicholas didn’t let Christmas become a mere memory, instead it bled into his everyday living.
Unless we let Advent remind us that Christmas is not about ‘then’ but utterly about ‘now’ the Wise Men cease to be reminders of the width of the gospel, and become mere ‘colour’ for the narrative, the token foreigners. In truth, they are reminders that this story reaches beyond ‘our patch’ and that God is capable of speaking in ways beyond our comprehension. The Wise Men remind us not to get possessive of God.
Unless we let Advent animate Christmas here and now, the Shepherds and their flocks and the angels are reduced to simply great costuming opportunities for our nativity plays. In truth, they remind us of the depth and height of the gospel. Even the Shepherds, those on the margins are invited. They remind us not to get protective of God.
Advent helps us here again, because it insists this story is not a museum exhibit, to be carefully taken out and dusted off, but a living, dynamic narrative that takes hold of us in the present and leads us into God’s future.
The Christmas story belongs as an answer to the questions raised by these difficult Advent readings. Take for example the readings from the first week of Advent. The Old Testament reading from Jeremiah 33:14-16 takes us back to stand with the ancient Israelites, waiting for their Messiah, whom we believe is Jesus Christ. But the Gospel reading from Luke 21:25-36 has Jesus speaking of his second coming, reminding us that we too are in a season of watchful anticipation. That reading sets the scene for Advent and Christmas. We are not play-acting at waiting, we are actually waiting. Our waiting is not satisfied on Christmas morning, but it is justified. For there we are assured that this God does come, and is faithful. Our waiting is strengthened by the affirmation that we do not wait in vain. God’s coming is not only behind us, but also ahead of us.
One of the strangest aspects of the Christmas nostalgia that I see infecting the Church’s marking of Advent is that many of us are nostalgic for something that we have never actually experienced. Here in New Zealand, in the height of summer, I have never known a ‘white Christmas’. Sitting inside next to a roaring fire with a glass of mulled wine is so far from my experience of this time of year, yet those images invade my imagination during this season. This rose-tinted, phony remembering keeps me from the present task of watching for Jesus’ coming in the here and now. Instead of watching for Christ in my own time and place, I get tricked into remembering someone else’s experience as if it were my own. But it does not transform me, or enliven me – because it is not real for me. I was never there. Instead, Advent asks me to live into the hoping and waiting as if Jesus were really coming again, because, crazy as it sounds, he is.
There is a strange and holy folding of time that takes place at Advent. We draw these characters out of the ancient past, and set them next to our own time. But all the carols and nativity scenes are not merely aids to memory. They are intended to be aids to discipleship. Because, like them and with them, we are watching and waiting for the unexpected coming of Jesus.