When Constantine entered Rome on October 29, 312 after the battle of Melvian Bridge, after what was essentially his conversion to Christianity following a vision of the cross, he staged a grand arrival ceremony in the city called an adventus, whereat the conquering king was met with popular jubilation. The party lasted for weeks. Finally, after the mess of having too many rulers, the discord was behind them. A new era had arrived. Romans called that public celebration, that joy, and that era “the Advent.”
The church calendar represents the assembled wisdom of ages of faithful believers, and it knows a thing or two about what humans need. The notion of an All Souls Day may sound strange or grim until one’s mother dies, or one’s child, and then having a day every year to remember, lament alongside the church worldwide, and reassure one another sounds like practical good sense. So too, we need a season to examine our own sinfulness, and look squarely at how very far we have to go in our journeys toward holiness and it’s nice if that season comes right before everything is made fresh and new at Easter. And they knew we needed a season of unbridled joy at the astonishing gift of salvation, a time where we would give gifts ourselves in acknowledgement of all we’ve received, a time of merrymaking and tingling anticipation, and how nice if that time were right when the natural world was growing dark and cold.
I bring this up because recently there have been attempts to bridle that season of unbridled joy by pretending it is something it is not: a time of sorrow and repentance. We do not need another Lent on top of the one we have–40 days is long enough for that sort of business, thank you very much–my heart at any rate can’t take more of such poking and prodding. This reversal has theological implications too. Advent is outward focused: we increase our giving in terms of time, talent, and treasure to make our homes, our parishes, and our neighborhoods brighter. If we play an instrument, or sing in a choir, or dance ballet, this is often our busiest season. Thinking of Advent as another Lent ruins that others-focus by calling us again to sit with the darkness of ourselves; it is completely antithetical to the spirit of the year.
I can see why the change has been made. Because of the commercial rewards, “Christmas season” has been moving further and further up in the year; we start seeing decorations as early as October, even September sometimes. People naturally want to resist such encroachment. It’s hard to appreciate the autumn, or Thanksgiving, if we’re imaginatively in a winter wonderland. And as Kingdom people, we’re used to resistance. Christians are given, in the season of Advent, forty days to celebrate, to anticipate, and to prepare for Christmas. But what some have done, and only very recently in my communion, the ACNA, is to act as though Christmas season isn’t here until the December 25th, the Christmas feast day. Up till that point, we are to ignore the signs of joy and wonder all around us, to put our noses in the air, refusing to sing the greatest hymns the church has created until Christmastide, the 12 days that follow the 25th. I think that’s looking at the gift of the calendar in the wrong light.
There’s a reason we have metaphor, a reason so many of Christ’s parables take that form and that so many of the psalmist’s cries are bejeweled with them. Metaphors are not some ornament, a way to make language seem fancy and fun, still less are they some debased form of entertainment. They’re a way to think through problems and situations beyond the limit of one’s own knowledge or even reason.
To illustrate the point, I’ll give an example that may seem sentimental, but I want to be sure to use one with which everyone will be familiar. No doubt you have heard it said that love is like a rose. The way the engine of metaphor works is we lie Item A mentally alongside Item B and we ask ourselves in what way are they alike and we come to the usual conclusions.
Well, we say of a rose:
- it sweetens the air
- it is lovely to look on (romcoms are a genre for a reason)
- it seems to burst suddenly into flower rather than gradually and obviously
- It is sometimes spent quickly and very ugly thereafter
That may be all we can think of in any given moment about the feeling of infatuation, but what metaphors allow us to do is, once we’ve reached that imaginative terminus, is to leap back to the other item and wonder at it from that other angle. We can ask next, not what love is like or in what ways is love like a rose, but rather simply what is a rose like? Go ahead. Pick it up, it’s lying right there. And of course you see right away the revelation. Superadded to what we had listed out and thought fully expressed, we now have to add the bit about the thorns. When we remember them, we recall two additional things about love: that you have to be extremely careful with it, and that it hurts insanely. The metaphor doesn’t put our heads in the clouds; it plants our feet on the ground. It reminds us of the real when our tendency is to grow sentimental and forget the barbs. All I’m saying is that if we want to get at the truth about something, we ought to take seriously the metaphors in which it is inscribed.
So what are the metaphors by which we are to interpret Advent? The first is a pregnancy and the second a star, both of which, I contend, do battle with the idea of Advent as a little Lent.
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I set myself a huge number of tasks. I wanted a proper wooden cradle, rather than a modern crib, which then needed a special mattress. I fretted over her mobile, selected the softest and most harmonious blankets, her clothes, changing table, everything mattered to me and I delighted in the work. I cleaned parts of our house I never had before and frankly haven’t since. In part, I was merely doing what I could while my wife performed the more spectacular task of making a human, but in part it was more than that.
We all feel it: this urge to make things right for the coming guest, to beautify our space even if the space we command is no larger than a stable. But also, everything is about to change! We’re about to be a family! I was giddy with excitement nearly every day of her pregnancy. My joy expanded as the date grew near, as she grew bigger and then impossibly bigger. I could see in her belly how very near we were to the in-breaking, the arrival. Not for a second did I hang my head low, muttering, “yes, I suppose she’s pregnant, but I still don’t have a child.” A ridiculous thought. No one, anywhere or ever, bemoans that they are childless during a growing pregnancy. It’s happening! The proof is right there, inscribed on the body.
That is how we are meant to spend Advent. Not in the vanity of self-reflection, not in looking honesty at the misery and helplessness of our human condition. If we sing “Come though Long Expected Jesus,” it should not be with a tired longing that only half-believes he’ll actually arrive, but with a giddy joy: Mary is pregnant! All the unbelievable prophecies are about to happen! It’s joyful in the extreme. It’s a waiting still, to be sure, but one completely without sorrow.
The second metaphor is the star that guides them. The scriptures tell of a new star in the heavens that led the wisemen to Bethlehem. If we fail now to appreciate how very special, how electrical it would have felt to observe a new star, it is only because light pollution and modern conveniences have made us illiterate in the astronomical regard. For them, everything predictable was now unpredictable. A new king! Everything is changing! The wisemen would not have plodded along murmuring that they hope a king turns up someday, would not have looked at the absence of God in the world, nor at their own great sorrow and needs. They’d have shouted out each night when the day died enough for it to reappear. He’s coming! They’d have whistled merry tunes along the way, stamping through the sand. Pa rum pum pum pum.
No less a social prophet that Frederich Nietzsche wrote once that “the trick is not to arrange the festival, but to find people who can enjoy it.” But I think the problem may be bigger than finding such people. The church’s job is to form such people. The rituals and festivals by which we mark and celebrate the seasons, should be forming us into the sort of people who can enjoy those very seasons and holy days. A properly performed, properly staged Advent teaches joyful anticipation, after which we are qualified to enjoy the Christmas feast day and its aftermath.
Essentially, I am calling for a re-examination of the balance between Advent and Christmastide. Currently, in many Anglican parishes, Advent is seen as darkness, waiting, longing, but not joy and then Christmastide is when we celebrate all the things we have come to know and love about Christmas. That’s when we sing the songs and decorate. Some families have even taken to giving gifts mainly, or even entirely over the weeks of Christmastide, rather than on the day itself as an aid to making the season feel more special.
Every parent who has tried this knows they are facing an uphill battle. After the exhaustion of the Advent season with its commercial counterparts and the holy days of the church calendar proper, we are spent. The joy at that late stage feels manufactured and the season previous disappointing.
But what if we think about a different shape for Advent, one that builds slowly toward Christmas in a gradual way–she’s pregnant! There’s the star!– that Christmas day is a punctuation, the celebration, all our hopes come true at last, and then Christmastide is the season of reflection there-following? We need that post-feast time to reflect on God’s generosity towards us, to determine how we live after such gift-giving, how we honor the Christ child now and daily. That is the meaning of Christmas. It is not one long celebration after a period of reflection on our sin and the real darkness in which we live. Advent is a joyful anticipation, the in-breaking of a great light in what had hitherto been our darkness. It is the kindling in our hearts, the quickening in our pulse that everything is about to change. Then Christmas day is the feast, the celebration, and then Christmastide is the period of gratitude and reflection, thankfulness at these miracles.
Practically, this means we should by all means make ready the house of worship, and the house proper, beginning at Advent: we are expecting company after all. We should sing the Advent hymns, sure, but should begin adding Christmas ones too, perhaps one in the first Sunday of Advent and then two the next and so on until on Christmas Day, when the whole service is as full of singing as the angelic sky. We should do this because stars don’t pop into the air suddenly out of the black, but grow in brightness gradually. We should do this because women don’t deliver babies without any observable sign that one is coming. These are the metaphors we were given to parse these holy mysteries and the template they suggest puts us in the season aright: joy, just when the world is darkening; hope when all else is hopeless, and a feast for which we have amply prepared by journeying through another year, and through a proper Advent, to lay our little gifts at the feet of this Christ.