Reclaiming Advent, living Christmas

Advent candles in Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa
Advent candles in Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa. Photo: The Ven. Chris Dunn

I have always loved Advent. It offers a rich time of reflection in which we read some of our most profound, inspiring and challenging scriptures, all in the context of an equally rich musical/liturgical tradition. All of this, as we enter the time of year when the sun’s light is diminishing toward the winter solstice, so liturgically, we light candles to push back the darkness. This is a reminder that we are the people of the Christ, whose loving and healing light shines in our hearts. It calls us to be a ‘light in the darkness’.

Yet in today’s world, to keep Advent, in its true fullness, is also counter-cultural. The world around us, thanks to consumerism, launches into full-blown “Christmas” sometime just after Remembrance Day. Yet Advent invites us to an active waiting, preparing our hearts and minds, our very souls, to once again celebrate the Babe of Bethlehem and Lord of life in Christmas.  There is great spiritual insight in this. In the world around us there is a tendency to rush into Christmas, Easter and other times of celebration, and yet, once the feast has fully arrived it is over. Gone. Dead. It reveals to us that the pattern of this world is life-death. Yet for Christians the pattern of God is death-life. So it is that in Lent we enter a time of reflection on human mortality and sin, leading to Jesus’ execution, only to greet the risen Christ on Easter and then celebrate Easter for 50 days. Where Lent is 40 days, the Easter celebration is 50 days and finds its fulfillment in the gift of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost, making it a living, perpetual, feast.  

Similarly in Advent, we enter into a time of preparation, actively waiting, soul searching, and longing as our preparation for Christmas. Then Christmas itself is a season not a day. In the fullness of our tradition, Christmas is celebrated with 12 days of music, scripture and reflection that leads, in turn, to the long season of Epiphany. In Epiphany, we explore the meaning of the birth of Christ as we enter the New Year in faith. Again, Advent is teaching us that the economy of God is not life/death, but death/life. The Advent scriptures underscore all this as we encounter, over the four weeks of Advent, Waiting, Repentance, and Birthing God. 

On week one we hear the call to “be alert” to “be awake.” This is a reference to the active waiting mentioned above. It is the kind of waiting we do, not in a lineup somewhere, but as an active preparation for an important guest. It is a calling to be present in and engaged with the world. In the last four years, as our world has undergone the angst of a global pandemic, and now we witness wars in Ukraine and most recently in Israel/Palestine, it has been tempting to say something to the effect of “wake me when it is over.” But our Advent faith tells us to engage, to be alert, and to continue to reach out. We are called to not turn our eyes away from these things.  Just as in our Diocese, during the pandemic, we pivoted our ministries both parochial and at community ministries, to ensure that people were cared for and the poor supported, so too in this current place of “wars and rumours of wars” we are called to be present. We are, I believe, called to be aware of the crisis, the injustices and the complexities of these situations so that we may respond with aid, knowledge, and challenge to the assumptions our culture often makes. This is equally true for the burdens of this inflationary time, as well as the homelessness crisis and the pressure it is putting on the most vulnerable. This is the true spirit of “being alert” and “being awake” for the Christ.

On the second and third weeks of Advent we usually hear the story of John the Baptist and his call to repentance. Repentance is about a change of heart/mind. It involves the soul searching to be honest with ourselves about our lives and the life of our world.  On a cursory reading, John the Baptist sometimes comes across as a slightly unhinged, judgmental wild man. Yet ultimately while provocative, he was a prophetic figure that people came to hear from all the surrounding country. That tells us that to the people of his time, John was speaking Good News. News people wanted to hear! His message then, as now, is something we need to hear in order to lighten life’s burdens and give hope. The call to repentance is not as simple as confessing our sins. True repentance is about a deep transformative soul searching which empowers us to let go of the anxious self-concern of our egos, in order to live more fully and consciously before God in the human community. In this year’s reading from Mark it says, speaking of John’s ministry, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” In other words, John’s role was to call all who hear to live, not just concerned for themselves, but in the kind of compassion, forgiveness and understanding that builds communities, lifts the burdens of the needy, and reaches out to the marginalized…the way of the Lord! In the difficult economic and politically charged times in which John and Jesus lived, this was good news indeed. And so it is for us too in our own difficult economic and politically charged times.

Finally on the last Sunday of Advent, we explore the life and ministry of Mary. In the rich metaphorical language of the Gospels, we hear how Mary was called to be the God Bearer (Theotokos from the Eastern Church). We are asked to remember, through her, that we are similarly called to be God Bearers and to give birth to the Christ in our own lives. To use St Paul’s imagery, to “put on the mind of Christ.” When I hear that phrase I feel that it is an invitation to look in the mirror, and ask ourselves the question: When people meet us do they feel that they have met the reflection of the Christ? Do we represent the way of the Christ in our conversation, compassion, listening, concern for the poor, the displaced/dispossessed and care for God’s creation?

With these rich themes Advent prepares us for Christmas. Christmas itself, only actually begins at sundown on Dec. 24. But the feast as a whole, extends to Epiphany (little Christmas) and in many respects into the Epiphany Season. There was a time when Christians remembered this and observed each day of Christmas as important. Sadly, in the world around us, Christmas is over on the 26th.  (I have often cynically commented that at one time was there was a Christmas week that had a boxing day in it. Now there is a boxing week that happens to have a Christmas day in it.) Perhaps it is time we reclaim what is ours. Perhaps it is time to mark the fullness of Advent and Christmas/Epiphany and to enjoy the human and divine journey it represents. There is an ancient tradition of keeping the Creche out until Feb. 2nd (Candlemas) to remind us that Christmas moves into Epiphany and that together they call us into the very life of God in Christ.  May we all pass a blessèd Advent and a full and spiritually renewing Christmas Season.


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