Rescuing Advent from Christmas

The modern “Christmas Season” is a cultural reality but has little to do with faith.

By Bill Leonard

In 394 CE the Spanish nun Egeria visited Holy Land sites, participating in the church’s great liturgical moments from Epiphany to Easter. She kept a wonderful diary of her exploits that includes this experience in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 394:

“I was fortunate enough to be granted permission to pass through the underground passage in the outer north wall into the very cave itself. By what words, with what voice, can I describe it? That manger too wherein the babe wailed is better honoured by silence than by imperfect speech. In this little nook of the earth the Founder of the heavens was born; here He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, beheld by shepherds, shown by the star, adored by the wise men. And as I knelt there ... with mingled joy and tears.”

Leaving the church for the “village” of Bethlehem Egeria found that “the ploughman ... sings Alleluia,” the “perspiring reaper diverts himself with chants” and the “vinedresser sings … the songs of David.” She concluded: “I was so uplifted, so that the evening came before I was aware of it.”

Returning to Jerusalem on Jan. 6, she began Epiphany by confessing: “After we had rested from the fatigue of our devotions on the night before, we all gathered at eight o’clock in the Great Church which is in Golgotha.”

A footnote in my copy of Egeria’s diary reports that toward the end of the 4th century, St. Jerome -- who lived in a cave under the Church of the Nativity -- complained that the “manger of sunbaked mud,” supposedly the original, was replaced by a silver one. Is that when Christmas started going downhill?

Reading Egeria after watching scenes from this year’s Black Friday rituals -- mobs of people trampling, fighting, cussing each other -- it dawned on me that this “Christmas season” we are a hell of a long way (theologically speaking) from “that little nook of the earth.”

So here’s a proposal for the postmodern church, toward dialogue if not implementation: Let’s give up on “the Christmas Season.”

Let’s admit that the mall-mobbing, gift-obsessing, economy-benefitting, culture-Christmas that begins with Black Friday, continues on Cyber Monday, and culminates in the disillusion of January refunds has won the day. Accept that as a socio-economic reality, but let’s not confuse the Christmas Season with faith, for God’s sake.

Let’s also confess that if Christians continue to act like the Christmas Season has anything to do with the Jesus story then we deserve what we get. Let’s run from current culture-bound public forms of Christmas (including carols on the mall sound system), and embrace the season of Advent as fast as we can.

Let’s make Advent -- the four weeks of prepping for Christ’s “coming” into the world -- the contemporary church’s witness against the current Christmas Season hype. Many churches do that already, but let’s all get serious about it.

Wikipedia (not acceptable for academic articles, which this is column is not) reports that in a sermon given around 386 in Antioch, John Chrysostom affirmed Dec. 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth.

He connected biology and theology with elaborate speculation that Jesus’ conception (Luke 1:26) occurred in the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist (Luke 1:10-13). This he linked to John’s father Zacharias’ participation in the Day of Atonement during the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar (Lev. 16:29, 1 Kings 8:2).

Apparently dates like May 20, April 19 and Jan. 2 were at some point considered Christmas possibilities. The Western Church ultimately chose Dec. 25, already a popular celebration of birth of the “Sol Invictus,” the “invincible Sun” by various groups including the Mythra sect.

Advent is first mentioned in certain 6th century materials as a time of Christmas preparation that paralleled Lent, with fasting and meditation on the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Advent soon became a part of the Christian year, an annual retelling of the Jesus story to ancients who -- like current postmoderns -- had limited knowledge of gospel details. Unlike Christmas, Advent still belongs to the church, four weeks focused on hope, peace, joy, love.

So let’s all take the pledge: For Christians, nobody gets to Christmas without going through Advent. Nobody reads the phrase “and she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2), who hasn’t previously read Mary’s prophetic warning: “the arrogant of heart and mind God has scattered, but the humble have been lifted up; the rich sent away empty, but the hungry have been filled with good things” (Luke 1).

With Egeria, let’s celebrate “the fatigue of our [Advent] devotions,” not the exhaustion of shopping till dawn. Let’s leave Santa at the mall and put nativity scenes in our front yards. But be careful.

Our family considered putting a nativity scene in the yard as this year’s Advent witness, but since two “Obama for President” signs were stolen from that space during the recent election, we decided to keep nativity indoors.

If people in Winston-Salem, N.C., will steal Obama signs, they’ll steal the Baby Jesus too, given half a chance -- even if the manger isn’t silver. Alleluia.

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