In many ways, Advent is a tough sell. The Christian tradition is no longer really the “driver” of the Christmas season, having been overtaken by the commercial Christmas machine. Now the needs of stores to sell — and of people to buy — have served to move the Christmas season into the whole of December, and, indeed, into November, as well. Thanksgiving has almost become the day which people must get through in order to dive into Black Friday. And Advent has become more of a shopping season than a season of spiritual preparation.
In earlier ages, Advent was known as a “Little Lent.” It was observed with fasting and a more serious devotion to prayer. The pink or, traditionally, rose colored candle on the Advent Wreath that signifies the Third Sunday of Advent is there as a marker that Advent is halfway over, that the season of fasting is heading toward its completion, that the feasting of Christmas is ever nearer. Of course, this way of observing Advent emerged in a time when Christmas was also a more spiritual celebration, and gift-giving was modest, before it became the economic juggernaut of modern times.
I realize that I’m probably at risk here of sounding like a bit of a Grinch, and I don’t mean to. I love Christmas. And we put up our Christmas tree at home during Advent, and play Christmas carols on the stereo all through December. And I don’t fast. However, it does seem to me that our tendency to run over Advent with faces firmly set toward Christmas is indicative not just of the economics of Christmas, but of the fact that in many ways, we have become unskilled at waiting. And that is exactly what Advent really urges us to do: to wait, and to make the waiting itself meaningful. But we are not good at waiting. We are accustomed to a life in which things are delivered quickly and efficiently. We easily become impatient, and even angry, over the prospect of waiting. We want things to happen now — we want to get on with things.
That’s why I find the practice of church-going during the Advent season to be so important. While some of my parishioners would wish to sing Christmas carols in church all through December, I like the fact that church services during the Advent season embody a spirit of waiting and preparation, providing a space in which we can wonder about the mystery of waiting for the Promised One, and wonder about the ways in which we long for Christ to be born in us.
I don’t harbor any hope that we will abandon the madness of getting ready for Christmas in our society as a whole. But I’m glad that the church provides these opportunities to get in touch with the art of waiting and wondering. Because when we approach Christmas slowly, step by step, instead of rushing headlong toward it as fast as we can, it makes the celebration on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day all the more powerful. It allows us to savor the celebration when we have waited well.