Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Focused on Advent

(A sermon preached on The First Sunday of Advent at All Saints' Episcopal Littleton)

The tension between Christmas and the period of time that leads up to it is nothing new to our society. People claim that it has gotten worse in recent times, and perhaps they are right: after all, those who wait until October 30th to get their Halloween costumes are more likely to find Christmas decorations in stores. But the tension of the season goes back to at least before 1920.

While it has been overshadowed by the Macy’s Day Parade, the oldest of the Thanksgiving’s parades was in Philadelphia: The Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I found on Wikipedia that Ellis Gimbel, one of the founders of Gimbels Department Stores, wanted his toyland to be the destination of holiday shoppers everywhere. He dressed up over 50 store employees and sent them out on their first Thanksgiving Day parade: with Santa Claus arriving at the end of the parade.

The idea was picked up by a number of other stores, including Macy’s, whose New York City parade began in 1927. The culture of it all, the association with Christmas and sales, was now a strong force.

It would be wrong to place blame for the commercialization of Christmas solely on Department Stores: after all, Gimbel’s decision to have a parade to drive sales was built on the reality that people were already buying more things leading up to Christmas. There’s actually a great deal of fascinating history to the whole development of Christmas as an American Holiday. The point I wish to make, however, is that the struggle to keep the religious tradition of the period before Christmas has long been a difficult one.

This morning, I wish to share with you one attempt to re-frame the season of Advent.

In 2006, 5 pastors looked to refocus the time before Christmas by started what they called Advent Conspiracy. They wrote:

The story of Christ's birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love.

So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists.

And when it's all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas?

What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?

Advent Conspiracy’s starts with the commitment to buy ONE LESS CHRISTMAS GIFT. America spends an average of $450 billion a year every Christmas, and many of the gifts are either in excess, or out of obligation. When Advent Conspiracy first began four churches challenged this simple concept to its congregations. The result raised more than a half million dollars to aid those in need. One less gift. One unbelievable present in the name of Christ.

Additionally, Advent Conspiracy suggests a shift in the tenor towards gifts in general.

“God’s gift to us was a relationship built on love. So it’s no wonder why we’re drawn to the idea that Christmas should be a time to love our friends and family in the most memorable ways possible. Time is the real gift Christmas offers us, and no matter how hard we look, it can’t be found at the mall. Time to make a gift that turns into the next family heirloom. Time to write mom a letter. Time to take the kids sledding. Time to bake really good cookies and sing really bad Christmas carols. Time to make love visible through relational giving. “

What the Advent Conspiracy accomplishes is both a change in focus and a common mission project not unlike our MDG work. Overall, I really like it. And I think it can be successful in challenging our outlook towards Christmas.

Advent Conspiracy says:

This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year.

There’s one thing that still bothers me a little: Advent Conspiracy defines Advent solely in terms of preparation for Christmas.

I was talking with Alison (from our church) the other day, and she told me that Advent church services are such a drag. We’re supposed to be part of this joyful preparation, and then we sing dreary things like O Come O Come Emmanuel.

I think I know what she means: we think of Advent as the season that builds up the joyful spirit, to be fully released at Christmas. A little more focus on joy in the Advent services would then be a good thing.

Maybe that’s what Advent should be. Perhaps it would make more sense.

However, for better or for worse, the Church season of Advent is more than just preparing for Christmas.

Every first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new church year, we get an adult Jesus telling us in dramatic and somewhat scary fashion about the coming fulfillment of God. That’s clearly not just about preparing for Christmas.

I don’t think it’s necessary to analyze this morning’s Gospel passage (Matthew 24:36-44) beyond its tone of urgency: this is after all part of the apocalyptical section of the Gospel of Matthew, and any apocalyptical text needs to be considered as a whole, not as an excerpt. (Although perhaps it’s worth remembering that Jesus will finish this whole section of readiness by saying that the righteous will be those who served Jesus by giving others what they need: food, drink, clothing, care & concern.)

As far as the tone of urgency, this passage captures an important part of what I call the Advent moment.

I would metaphorically describe the Advent moment as the darkness before the dawn: before the sky bursts into radiant hues of reds, pinks, oranges and finally brilliant sunshine...before the light breaks the darkness…it is really, really dark.

That darkness isn’t’s not where we want to stay, but it does serve a purpose.

The Advent moment is the time to pause, and turn around with open ears, an open mind, and an open heart. Advent refocuses the question. We are redirected from wherever the world and our lives have taken us, and called to turn our attention back on Jesus and the Kingdom of God: holding on to what each of us believes, while at the same time considering what’s still to be seen.

Kate Huey sees it this way:

“For so many reasons, we live with a powerful undertow of anxiety; isn't it understandable, then, that we'd rather think about shopping, and decorations, and carols, and a sweet baby in a stable long ago and far away? What does the church have to say about all of that? The church turns our attention toward the future, and the present, not just the past, although that past helps us to remember who God is, and how God works in the world, in our lives, so we can get a much better sense of where we are headed, and what the promises of God will bring. And that's why Advent is such a beautiful season: it remembers and re-tells the story of people who, like us, were waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, and striving to live faithfully as they waited.”

Huey’s commentary finishes with words from Barbara Brown Taylor to help inspire and move us on this first day of a new church year, as we look towards Christmas, as we long for a new heaven and a new earth, to seek to live our lives right here, right now, in ways that are pleasing to God and utterly trusting in God's goodness:

"Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow." (From "On the Clouds of Heaven" in The Seeds of Heaven)

Peace be with you in this season of Advent.

1 comment:

Fr. Warren said...

Good stuff Kurt. This follows on the heels of a interesting exchange of takes on Advent Conspiracy on Monday's Episcopal Cafe: The Lead.

The change of light and looking beyond the darkness stretches us in different ways in different years.

I'm generally on board with Advent Conspiracy as a way of re-orienting our focus. In some ways it works the way Walter Brueggemann says that Psalms work on us, namely to orient us toward God, disorient is into dependence and reorient us to the Divine.

If Advent Conspiracy helps us to 'get ready' for the eschaton without turning AC into an idol of it's own, then I think there's real value in its message. If it merely becomes another way of naming and shaming us into a false generosity, then it's personal piety bordering on the Pharasaic. At least, that's how I see it.

Stay warm up north.