Becoming Anglican after growing up Baptist took some getting used to. Not just the liturgy (“vain repetitions!”) or the kneeling and genuflecting and crossing of oneself (“it’s so Catholic!”), but also the church seasons and their various focuses. In my childhood years, our church seasons, such as they were, mirrored the physical seasons of our local slice of the hemisphere and the holidays being celebrated by Americans. But my having grown up reading Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis meant that the church seasons also felt right, like a homecoming of sorts, even though I’d never actually been there before. And the power that resides in the observance of these seasons is not to be understated. Let me tell you, Easter was never so powerful as the one I celebrated after truly observing Lent for the first time.
Christmas, too, takes on a deeper meaning after the four-week observance of Advent. It has taken me time to process and comprehend the implications of Advent. Oh, I’ve always known, even as a Baptist, that we’re supposed to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ in human form. But quite frankly, it always seemed symbolic and commemorative rather than something ongoing right now. Imagine my surprise when I heard from the pulpit for the first time the notion that Advent is a sort of mini-Lent, a time of repentance and preparation, of fasting and taking on of new disciplines! For Christmas?!
The dissonance between the usual Christmas season prep—decorating, shopping, baking, shopping, gift-wrapping, shopping, card-sending, shipping (not a typo), deal-hunting, shopping, party-planning/attending, shopping, list-making/checking, shopping, stressing, shopping—and what I am told at church that I should do for preparation is quite evident—it’s Christmas in two different and clashing keys. And yet, all of the epistle and gospel readings on and leading up to this first Sunday in Advent—both in the service and in the lectionary, which guides our morning and evening devotional prayers—seem to support the notion of approaching this season very differently.
The epistle reading for today’s service, for example, from Romans 13, advises us, “Owe no man anything, but to love one another. […] And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. […] But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”
And my first response is something like, But…it’s Christmas! It’s the time to indulge a little in the goodies that come with Christmas parties! And it’s tempting to take advantage of that sale to buy a little gift-to-self; after all, I’ve worked my a#$ off this year! And this scripture doesn’t mean I can’t do that—it’s just reminding me where my focus needs to be, not on myself and my wants but on the preparation for something much larger than myself and my petty desires.
It is high time to awake out of sleep…the night is far spent, the day is at hand. But this is winter, the season of darkness; it’s dark when I leave for work, and it’s dark when I leave to come home. All I want to do when I get home is curl up under a blanket and hibernate, after eating yummy warm things. Again, I don’t think this scripture means I cannot do that, but it should not be all that I do. I may not want to wake up, but we are preparing for something larger, mysterious, important. I can wake up now and prepare myself, or I can get caught flat-footed when it happens anyway. I don’t know about you, but I hate being rushed; if the alarm fails to go off, and I have to dash into my clothes, perhaps showerless and coffeeless, it really puts an ugly spin on the new day. This verse, apparently, is the alarm clock. Even though it is still dark, it won’t be for long.
Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. This speaks loudly of Advent as a season of repentance and not just of holiday parties. As in Lent, I am to examine myself and take note of my besetting sins and take on disciplines that will strengthen the virtues that correspond with and trump those sins. I still have much work to do there. (Ahem!) This is a reminder, too, that seasons of repentance and fasting are not just about giving stuff up—they are also about taking on new things to replace what we have forgone.
But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. Again, I may want to rebel at that, but it’s a reminder that this season is not about me. And I need to be okay with reining myself in, and not just use the holidays as an excuse to throw all caution to the wind in terms of consumption and spending. There are other ways to celebrate. There are other ways to give. In a season of repentance and fasting, one does not only give up that which is sinful; one can give up things that are inherently good or neutral but that may have been given more power than they should have—power evidenced by one’s reluctance to give them up. I watch my kitten practice temporary self-denial by depositing her fuzzy catnip froggy someplace out of her line of vision and then walking around chirruping and meowing to it, as if she’s forgotten where it is, sometimes even distracted for a time by another toy or plastic bag; but then she finds it again and the reunion is so much sweeter for the time away from it.
It’s always fun to think of the Baby Jesus in the manger and see his sweet and tender little head lit up by a halo of holy light, gently anointed by cows’ hay-sweet breath, like he’s shown in the paintings and Christmas cards. And yet the psalms appointed for today tell a slightly different version. For example, Psalm 50 says, “Out of Sion hath God appeared in perfect beauty. Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence; there shall go before him a consuming fire, and a mighty tempest shall be stirred up round about him.” Um, okay, but I think I like the tender Baby Jesus better; he’s less threatening. And the reading from Isaiah 13 begins, “Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand.” Really? But Christmas is about warm feelings in my heart about this little baby in a cozy, glowing stable with candles and angels! Or perhaps not. Perhaps more is lurking there, beneath the precious and sweet tableaux.
Another psalm the lectionary assigns for today, Psalm 18, says, “There went a smoke out in his presence, and a consuming fire out of his mouth, so that coals were kindled at it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down, and it was dark under his feet. He rode upon the Cherubim, and did fly; he came flying upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness his secret place, his pavilion round about him with dark water, and thick clouds to cover him. At the brightness of his presence his clouds removed; hailstones and coals of fire. The LORD also thundered out of heaven, and the Highest gave his thunder; hailstones and coals of fire.” Yeah, that God came in the form of a human baby born in a barn. How to wrap my mind around that crazy and impossible paradox? How did that God—the God who flies and rides cherubim and breathes fire and makes it thunder—keep that god-ness at bay (without ever losing that god-ness) to force himself into a tiny human baby form (and we all know how limited this human form can be, regardless of our age)? How? And why?—why he “came to visit us in great humility”—that is where the mystery comes is. That adds a core of power to this dark season of preparation, and makes it possible for the anticipation to matter, for the longing everyone speaks of but that I have, historically, found very difficult to muster. This isn’t just some tender, sweet baby—as miraculous as every single baby is. This is that God, and I have a lot to do to get ready for that God.
After all, “[h]e’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 182).