It’s interesting that we celebrate two different seasons as one: Advent and Christmas. Every year the same discussions are had in congregations all over the country, usually between the pastor and the folks who are in charge of music, whether a music director, choir, or a committee.
The People: Why can’t we sing the Christmas Carols we love so much in Advent? Is it really that important?
Pastor: Because this is not Christmas, it is Advent, a season of waiting and anticipating and watching and reflecting. Singing Christmas Carols so early only feeds our addiction to immediate gratification.
The People: Oh come on, Pastor, really? We want Christmas Carols.
Pastor: You will get them, at Christmas and during Christmastide following.
The People: But we won’t be here after Christmas because we’re visiting Aunt Ethel in Indiana and, let’s be honest, we probably won’t go to church while we’re there.
Pastor: (sigh of defeat and frustration)
Ok, maybe it doesn’t go exactly like this, but these kinds of arguments keep happening and year after year it is getting harder and harder for a pastor to stand her ground and try to help the people settle in to the wrestling and uncomfortableness of waiting. The people of Israel waited 40 years wandering the desert to enter what they believed to be the promised land. Under several occupations the people waited for a savior to defeat their various occupiers and re-establish the City of God in Jerusalem (though there was some debate as to whether it was really Jerusalem or somewhere else). The early Christian communities had to wait nearly 300 years before they were affirmed by Emperor Constantine as a legitimate religious group. Relatively speaking, waiting four weeks to sing beloved Christmas Carols (many of which were only written within the last 100 or so years) doesn’t seem like such a stretch—especially considering this happens every year.
There is a reason for these seasons of waiting and reflecting. Advent and Lent are really sister seasons as we anticipate the salvific work of God to happen through the breaking-in to this world in the fragile form of an infant or through the horror of brute force and death administered by the hands of an empire upon an innocent man hung on a cross. In each of these seasons Christians are called to stop for a while and really take a hard look at our lives and how we’re living them. In each of these seasons we are invited to reflect on the good things in our lives, be challenged by the things we so often try to ignore, and, ultimately, remember that in all of it God is at work bringing truth and justice into even the most dire of situations.
I know it’s hard to do that in Advent when the stores are full of Christmas music, decorations, and all sorts of items calling us to buy them for the ones we love (or ourselves). But that is precisely the point: we are being called to pause and ponder even our buying and gift giving at Christmas (Is it compulsory? Why do we want this or that? Why do we want to give this or that—are there ulterior motifs behind all our hustling and bustling? Is this what God intends for us and our lives?).
It’s Simple: Just Breathe
I can go into my family’s traditions, which are very simple and really not much stress at all, but I don’t think that will help anything—or folks might just call me an old Scrooge (bah humbug!). I do hope we might invite ourselves to take moments out of each and every day and just take a few deep breaths. In many religious traditions there are practices like praying the hours (set times each and every day when all the work stops and one focuses solely on God, praying, listening, and maybe even singing). In this day and age it is difficult to do this (though I really do admire Muslims for their tenacity and commitment to praying every day no matter where they are or who they are with). But the prayers don’t need to be long. In fact, it can just be a few short breaths, taken deep, as we remind ourselves of God’s presence and allow that presence to fill us, move us, and continue to transform us. It only takes 30 seconds.
My Spiritual Director suggested to me that I set multiple alarms on my iPhone (most smartphones have the ability to do this) at various hours of the day (I have mine set at 2 hr intervals from 8am to 6pm, and then 10pm). I’ve downloaded a sound that gives off the chime of a Tibetan singing bowl, and when it goes off I simply take three deep breaths, maybe offering a short breath prayer that fits inside one cycle of breathing in and out. That’s it. It’s so simple, but enough to remind me of who I am, whose I am, and what I am being called to do and be, especially in this season of waiting. My hope is when I do get to those beloved Christmas hymns that my mind and attitude will be more mindful of their meaning and I will realize that all my waiting has helped me realize the presence of God already within me and those I meet.
Happy Adventing, my friends.