As pretty much everyone has noticed, the commercialization of the holidays seems to start earlier and earlier each year. It drives some of us crazy (Christmas displays in October??) but there are plenty of other people who love it. (It’s never too early to start getting ready for Christmas!)
I think for the latter camp, the happiness over the extension of the holiday season mostly means they’re just glad to get a head start on Christmas shopping, decorating, and party planning. Or they just really love Christmas music and are excited to start blasting it as early as possible.
Historically, the Christian Church has also taken some extra time to prepare for Christmas, but for very different reasons. In a tradition called “Advent,” (which essentially means “coming”) the four Sundays and even each day of December leading up to Christmas are spent reflecting on various themes and biblical passages to remember and build anticipation for the coming of Christ, both His Bethlehem birth and His return someday to make all things right. A signature component of the tradition involves five candles, four of them lit as the weeks progress (one for the first week, two for the second, etc.) with the fifth and central candle being lit on Christmas day.
You may be unfamiliar with the tradition as many of today’s churches have either stopped practicing Advent or never did to begin with. I only know about it because I grew up in a church that practiced it and my current church does as well, although in past years they haven’t. I’ve also been part of churches that did not, but I think there are plenty of ways churches can make Christmas meaningful and worshipful without practicing the particulars of Advent.
One of the main reasons many churches may not do Advent is a fear of empty tradition, going through motions of lighting candles and reciting the same Bible verses year after year until it loses all meaning and purpose. I completely understand this, and in many ways feel like this was the case in the church I grew up in. It makes for fond memories now as it was something consistent and expected for me as a child, an old friend to look forward to seeing each year, but the church did things seemingly exactly the same every year. There was nothing insightful or thought-provoking to infuse fresh meaning or reflection into the tradition. Same schedule of events, same verses quoted, same words. The church’s celebration of Christmas looked and felt the same every year, at least in my young-child mind. Good for sentimentality, bad for spiritual growth and reflection.
On the flip side, in recent years, Christmas has come and gone and I’ve barely given it a thought. My husband and I are not very sentimental and we were kidless until a year and a half ago, so since getting married in 2008 we’ve essentially put up no trees, no lights, and no decorations. Couple that with attending churches that didn’t do much of anything extra for Christmas, and December 25th would just pass without a thought.
While this made for pretty stress-free Decembers, it also somewhat numbed my mind to the beauty and worthy-to-be-celebrated-ness of Christmas. It was just another day and I took zero time to reflect on the incredible realities of God becoming flesh, of His reaching down to save His enemies, of the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah.
So while I don’t want to practice an empty and rote tradition, I don’t want to completely gloss over Christmas either because it truly is so meaningful. This is why I’m excited to be at a church again that encourages its people toward a meaningful Advent experience, and also to relive some of my family’s Advent traditions as my husband and daughter and I are currently living back home with my parents. (In next week’s post I’ll share a bit more about these traditions.)
I want to walk through this December refreshed, letting the Advent thoughts of the next few weeks help me in savoring contemplations of why Jesus was born, and why it matters for past, present, and future. I want those realities to overshadow any lesser logistics of commercial Christmas, Christmas cards, and holiday busyness.
And that’s the battle each year, isn’t it? To make space in our hearts and minds for God to remind and humble us anew of His great love and our great need for a Savior through a story that is so familiar, so cliched, so commercialized, yet so true and so powerful.
And Advent is just one way we can do that.