In the name of God, who is showing us the way. Amen.
Maybe this is just a problem if you have a lot of priests in your social media feeds, but for me, it’s already started. The Advent Police are out!
For the first time this year, Michael and I have an artificial tree. The prices just kept going up, and it kept getting harder and harder to find what we were looking for – so we decided to make the change. Since we don’t have to worry this year about the tree dying before Christmas, we decided to put it up a little earlier than normal. The problem is, the first tree we bought was missing one of the middle sections. When I showed a picture to Christina, she recognized that it looked sort of like a witch’s hat – with the bottom section sticking out noticeably farther than the section above it. Not really what we were going for…
So, I quickly returned the tree and ordered another, which thankfully had all the right pieces. I thought it was just a funny thing to see, however, so I shared a picture of the two trees side by side. I don’t think the post was up for an hour when investigators from the Advent police started swooping in with their comments. “What? Your tree is up before Christmas!?”
And I saw it again on another friend’s post this week. He posted a picture of his fully decorated tree – but the description was apologetic and deferential. “I’m just going to be so busy in the next few weeks – this is the only time I have – I don’t usually do this…” Even so, the Advent police swooped in to shame him!
It really is sort of ridiculous. It’s true – we won’t decorate for Christmas here in the church until we’re setting up for our Christmas services. It important for our expression of community liturgy. But home is different. Yes, our faith should follow us from the church and through our lives and into our homes and not just live in this one location, but how we express the season in our homes is a matter of personal discernment and piety.
The fact is, Advent is a season of preparation. And that was my comment to my friend who posted the picture of his decorated tree: Advent is about preparing. So I told him he was doing good preparing!
The lessons that we read during these few weeks of Advent point us toward setting up the story of Jesus, but also of preparing ourselves to encounter Christ. Last week it was a reminder to keep ourselves ready. “Keep awake!” Jesus said. This week, we’re readying ourselves to look forward by looking inward, and looking back.
What are the ways that we have allowed ourselves to be separated from God, and Christ, and Spirit? How have we tried to live our lives as though we were solely responsible for our fates – failing to trust in the wisdom of the divine that lures us? When has Christ been right in front of us – in our own experiences or in the form of others – but we were willfully blind? Where have we rejected the Body of Christ – in the form of us, gathered as Christ’s community – and chosen instead to walk alone?
That’s the chaff that John talks about. Those are the indigestible, useless husks that this season is meant to help us slough off – and not just shed, but destroy – to throw into the fire so that we can’t put them back on again.
I can’t tell you how much Advent is NOT about when you put up your tree.
It’s about turning around. Repenting. Changing our perspectives where we’ve been missing what is most important.
Earlier this week I read an essay where the writer said that the holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, got Advent right even more than we might imagine. Ebenezer Scrooge demonstrates for us what Advent should be like for all of us. We have to confront our past before we can consider our present. And we have to examine our present before we can hope to change our future. That’s what repentance is: seeing what was and becoming something more.
It’s less about the hell-fire and damnation that tends to leap to mind when we hear the word repentance, and more about reorientation. Turning away from all that’s been standing in our way, and seeing God, Christ, and Spirit more clearly.
Of course, screaming “Repent!” in the wilderness, or even unpacking and thinking about it the way I have here doesn’t make the job itself any easier. It’s still a spiritually thorny path – this business of confronting our past, examining our present, and changing our future. It’s not wrapped in pretty paper and nostalgia. It’s more likely going to resemble John the Baptist – wrapped in a course garment of camel’s hair and roughly tied about the waist with a leather band.
It may not be pretty or easy, but it is important. And, if we’re conscientious about it, the ways that we physically prepare our spaces for Christmas can also help us to prepare ourselves spiritually for encountering Christ. They can remind us to see things in a new way, and to see potential in what, through the rest of the year had grown bland and predictable.
Encountering Christ mixes it up. Encountering Christ is like taking a boring corner that once was home to nothing more than a simple lamp, and emblazoning it with a tree that shouldn’t be there, overrun with burning lamps, and trinkets that bring beauty and memory to the fronts of our minds.
Encountering Christ embodies surprise.
So forget about the Advent police. The real Advent police should encourage us to see the world in a new way. The real Advent police should help us ready the world around us and ourselves for a future we can’t yet imagine. That’s the work of Advent. That’s the path to Christmas. Amen.