I think it was the day after my father died, so almost exactly a year ago. With a lump in her throat, my mother said, “I might put out a few Christmas things this year, but I can’t put out anything that’s from the Advent box. I just think about your father making sure every year he didn’t get cheated out of an Advent tea if Christmas eve fell on a Sunday.”
Most liturgical traditions weren’t to be trusted in my mother’s Scottish Presbyterian upbringing: anything too liturgical was definitely Catholic, which was NOT Presbyterian. (For a very small country that loves their resistance stories so much, they seem to forget how much of their resistance was wrapped up in resisting the Church of England back when they were mostly Catholic.)
So it was interesting that when my mother lost many of her family’s traditions upon being cut off by her parents for marrying my (brown) Hindu father, one of the family traditions that the three of us clung to even though it had no part in either of their histories was Advent. Not the historical Advent of fasting and penitence (don’t worry, I’m getting there) but the Advent of lighting candles, listening to Christmas music, and having finger sandwiches thick with margarine and filled with the special treat of tinned salmon, or homemade sausage rolls–greasy hot water pastry filled with tubed sausage meat and sliced into bite sized pieces, and tiny individual mince pies. (My mother grew up in post-war Britain. That’s pretty high end.)
It was a much beloved ritual my mother was stunned I didn’t keep rigorously myself when I moved out. (And when I had a partner, I did. And to this day, I try to host ONE advent tea a year if I can pull it off, to share the tradition as best I can as a childless single person whose family traditions will die with me.)
I’m an everything nerd, so it’s not surprising I turned out to be a liturgy nerd. I’m also a generalist–I’m too lazy to delve deep into any one subject, no matter how interesting. So over the years people who have learned this about me have performed the party trick of sharing little nuggets of history about Advent in particular, which I treat as valuable oral tradition and do not seek to debunk, because they are such good sermon fodder.
Over the years I’ve learned these things about Advent that may or may not be true; don’t take them away from me:
- Advent was created as a season of penitence and fasting to provide dignity to people without resources. That was a lean season for serfs, and it sanctified–made holy– their struggle and demanded that those with more resources join their struggle if they wanted to see themselves as holy.
- Advent was a six week season like Lent, offering mirrors of our journey and challenge as we approach the miraculous birth (and the hope of overcoming a tyrannical state) and our journey and challenge as we approach the devastation of death and then the miracle of new life (after the conquering of hell).
- Gaudete Sunday/Rose Sunday/Joy Sunday (the pink candle, currently the third week of four Sundays, the other three being purple candles of royalty but also of deep reflection) was added because medieval folks would get so into the penitential aspect of Advent that by the Sunday before the Sunday before Christmas, people would be fainting from hunger in worship. (I know my Anglican friends will remind me every Sunday is meant to be a mini-Easter, but y’all know a Scottish Presbyterian by blood, no matter how liturgical, sees that as just cheating on the self-discipline.)
How is that not a SUPER COOL SEASON that we should all be totally digging? (OK, I get swept up in the hardcore bada**ery of folks in the medieval church, I admit.)
So here’s the thing. Every year in the US we get into lots of weird conversations and debates about whether the church is getting sucked into materialist culture by participating in Christmas before December 25. (It is.) We debate whether we should only sing Advent hymns (of which there are really only two that anyone knows–fight me) until Christmas Day, and then sing Christmas hymns until January 6, Epiphany, when everyone is sick to death of Christmas. (We should. And you don’t have to fight me cuz my mum will, every year. You’re good.)
I have friends who grew up in churches that don’t really have advent, who see it as very much a white thing or a mainline church thing or a Catholic thing. (They’re not necessarily wrong.) And yet as I’ve tried to practice Advent as faithfully as I practice Lent (which does end up getting a little too Catholic for my mother, no matter how hard she tries to overcome the sectarianism that damaged her homeland for hundreds of years), my relationship to Jesus and my political identity as a Christ-follower deepen. So I’m still fighting for it. Usually. Until this year.
My friends and I are what you might call “crispy.” We’ve called and mailed and protested and risked arrest and preached and marched and cried and vigiled and pilgrimaged til we have almost nothing left. We live in a nation that is caging babies and murdering sacred land. We live in a nation where hate crimes are on the rise and fascism is maybe creeping or maybe sauntering at this point. We live in a nation where everything tells us Black lives don’t matter but that saying Black lives DO matter makes us a threat to our government. We live in a nation where refugees are turned back to places we made dangerous and immigrants are deported but we continue to try to wipe out indigenous lives at the same time, reminding us that whiteness is the only real god we are meant to worship.
And so this year, I’ve been letting Christmas trickle in anywhere it needs to in communities that are impacted physically or psychically by this evil. I’ve been letting the already part of the Christmas miracle (God is always, already and not yet) show up as strongly as the not yet among my activist and organizer and care taker friends. I’ve started seeing this season as one long and well deserved Gaudete Sunday of joy after so many purple Sundays of hope, peace and love in the face of hopelessness, violence and hate.
I used to serve in a church where most of us didn’t have much, and I preached the importance of a season of Advent anticipation and even spiritual discipline and temperance in the face of American capitalist exploitation of our holiday for the sake of making a buck. I’m not sorry for that, and I’d also give anyone struggling a pass to let a little Christmas leak into Advent.
So maybe it doesn’t need to be a line in the sand, a bright line, a line of purple and pink candles against a line of green and red ones.
But here’s the thing, though.
How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?
What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?
What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?
What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?
I have some deeply liturgical friends who get mad at the Good Friday sermon that says “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” I remember getting mad at my congregation for not catching fire about the miracle of Moses and the liberation of Israel, and when I complained to a pastor who worshiped at the church when he wasn’t at his own, he said, “that’s because we know God liberated US right here just two hundred years ago so we don’t need to get excited about that,” and I got mad at HIM.
As I get older I am better at recognizing that for my siblings who are in an eternal advent, in the occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby had been born, a little sneak peak of Christmas isn’t a sin.
I just don’t want Christmas to be an anesthetic to the fact that we are all living in occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby has been born, and some of us who are wounded spiritually by the occupation (and ALL of us are wounded spiritually by it) still have some work to do to show up alongside the folks who are being wounded physically and psychically by that same occupation.
It’s why my friends created the now notorious “F*** this S***” advent devotional several years ago at the height of the Movement for Black Lives, to remind us that the prophets waiting for a better day used REALLY strong language to convey the urgency of the moment, the desperate need for a savior, the desperate need for us to do the WORK of preparation, to put aside politeness and civility and “decency” when those things are perpetuating violence.
So I guess, to use my long-forgotten theological ethics terminology, I’m trying to make the argument that the right to Christmas before December 25 feels to me to be situational.
I get that I’m fighting a losing battle. I’m not 100% sure it’s a battle that matters anywhere near as much as the work I get to do with congregations and nonprofits seeking to institutionalize anti-oppression practices into the lives of their organizations. That said, as a deeper and deeper proponent of nonviolence, I also find myself moving more and more towards spiritual discipline as the way to remain grounded in my work, my accountability and my relationship to the divine in hard times.
I haven’t asked but I think my mother’s putting out the advent wreath this year. I’m not sure she’ll make sausage rolls for one, but she’ll watch all of the Christmas choral concerts on PBS. It might still be too sad one year later for either of us to do the joy-filled advent rituals that made my father act delightfully like a child even in the years when he was working so hard and often ran a little short tempered.
And when she’s with me on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we’ll go to church and then to the Dickens Christmas Faire at the Cow Palace because I’m not an absolute purist either.
A friend made a beautiful argument for why we as progressive Christians should embrace Christmas the way it’s being practiced in the secular world. If we don’t reclaim Christmas as a season of all the beautiful values we believe Christmas to be, my friend argued, we’ve ceded ground and are letting the corporations and capitalist interests define it.
That’s cool. I’m just going to wait to reclaim it til December 25th. And in the mean time I’m pushing Advent HARD, just like Sysyphus with the boulder, December after December, a rock made out of hope and peace and joy and love and two other substances I don’t know because we’ve reduced it by two weeks.
If it’s any consolation, my mother’s rolling her eyes right along with you, as she hangs up her Christmas decorations, and as I do, too.