Saturday, 30 November 2013

The War on Advent: Christian Observance as Socio-Economic Rebellion

Well, it’s that time of year again-  one that many Christians dread.

It’s a time, once again, when Christian religious traditions are marginalised and ignored. It’s an annual time of feeling forgotten and disdained, when once again we see one of the most beautiful and meaningful Christian observances all but banished from the public sphere.

Oh, I'm sorry, you think I’m talking about a supposed ‘War on Christmas’? Don’t be daft. Oh, of course I’ve been subjected once again to the annual deluge of nonsense from FOXNews, Family Research Council and the rest of that ridiculous clique of rightist evangelicals who seem to go through the last quarter of the year deaf and blind. If you can get from October to January and think Christmas is in some way being pushed out of the limelight, I seriously think you're delusional. And as someone who has worked in Israel, occupied Palestine, Rwanda and Northern Ireland, I think the 'war' rhetoric used in relation to this supposed slight on the celebration of Christmas is offensive and absurd.

No, I’m of course referring to the ‘War on Advent’. If there’s a Christian tradition in danger of being marginalised, ignored or destroyed altogether, it’s Advent… And it’s the same bunch who moan about a supposed ‘War on Christmas’ that are destroying it. The very fact that they probably don't know what I’m talking about goes a long way toward proving my point.

Advent (from the Latin word adventus, meaning ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’) is the season that precedes Christmas in the Christian liturgical year. It begins on the first Sunday after the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (30 November) and continues until the 24th of December. It serves as a time of preparation and reflection. Advent traditions involve the lighting of candles on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, usually in church but also in the home. Similar to the season of Lent which leads up  to Easter, Advent is also a traditional time of fasting, self-examination, and prayer.

Reflections during Advent often draw on the biblical texts from the long centuries before the birth of Christ. Advent is a time to remember the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures that tell of the eventual coming of God’s messiah, which Christians believe refer to Jesus. It is a time to reflect on the coming incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus, the invasion of God into his creation. Ultimately, Advent prepares us for Christmas, the celebration of ‘God with us’.

Advent means a lot to me. It was an important time in our family’s year. I was raised in a Christian tradition that observed the Liturgical Year, a cyclical calendar that takes the Church through the year in a rhythmic series of feasts, fasts, observances, remembrances, holidays and commemorations. The liturgical year took us through the life of Christ, the lives of the saints and the life of the Church.

And Advent was the beginning of the year.

The liturgical calendar is embedded so deeply in my personal spiritual DNA that I can’t imagine celebrating Christmas without marking the four weeks of Advent before it. I pray, I meditate- and I fast. Like Lent, Advent is a time to engage my mind and body in a time of discipline. And part of that discipline is, ironically, not thinking that much about Christmas.

Advent- and the liturgical year of which it is a part- are, for me, an effective inoculation against what 'Christmas' has increasingly become: a corporate, consumerist, end-of-the-fourth-economic-quarter hysteria that begins just after Hallowe’en and goes until a day or two after 25 December.  

I don’t know what to call that 50-odd day season that screams, shrieks and howls the joys of owning, purchasing, having and (just to give it some semblance of moral fibre) ‘giving’. I don’t know what to call it- but it's certainly not ‘Christmas’.

Again, the liturgical calendar is there to- if we wish- keep us in perspective. It reminds us that the 25th of December (‘The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord’ to give it its mouthful of a name) is the
beginning of the season of Christmas, which will continue for twelve days and conclude with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January. When I was growing up, our church would celebrate Epiphany with a spaghetti supper, after which we’d all help take down the Christmas decorations all over the church, bringing our Christmas festivities to a close for another year.

The point I’m trying to make here is that, if you’re following the Church’s liturgical calendar, you realise how absurd it is for someone in November to go on about Christmas being marginalised because, well, it’s not Christmas… Hell, it’s not even ADVENT yet! Likewise, if you’re  following the Church calendar, there’s nothing particularly odd about wishing someone a merry Christmas on the 4th of January- because it’s still Christmas.

In the end, the ‘War on Christmas’ crowd doesn’t seem that interested in the Christian observance of Christmas, but in having a bigger profile in the aforementioned 31 October-25 December mayhem. If that’s what they want, fine, but in my opinion, it has very little to do with Christian practice or observance. It is celebrating Christmas where it doesn’t belong- and doesn’t fit. And if indeed that is the Christmas that they want to observe and have more of a presence in, they are welcome to it.

But I don’t think it’s harmless or benign; I think it does real harm to the Christian religion.  

The liturgical year, starting with the reflection and fasting of Advent, with its steady swing from fast to feast, is so out of synch with our culture’s annual observance of the 31 October-25 December orgy of noise and cash, malls and money, gluttony and greed that it effectively constitutes an act of economic and spiritual resistance. It reminds us of how counterculture the Christian religion can be if we want it to be.

The irony is that, if you keep Advent for its four weeks, you’ll draw more attention to the spiritual significance of the season than in loudly griping that the lighting display at the shopping centre filled with writhing throngs of broke consumers wished you ‘happy holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’.

Likewise, if you celebrate Christmas for its full twelve days, filling them with joy, festivity, feasting and generosity while the rest of society crashes into a debt-ridden, over-eaten depression, you will bear witness to something more precious and beautiful than a few extra light bulbs spelling out 'Merry Christmas' on the shopping centre.

Albert Camus wrote, ‘The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.’ 

This is the freedom- and the rebellion- of Advent.

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