I am told that there are ‘only’ 83 days, 15 hours, 41 minutes and 46 seconds until Christmas. Although the autumn term has only just started, there is already a sense that Christmas, with its relentless build up to the frenetic worship at the altar of Mammon, is just around the corner.
Christmas is the biggest consumer festival in our calendar, and I am fed up with it. In 2014, a conservative estimate of the festive spending in the UK alone was £26bn: an average of £495 per adult (with a similar sum of around $750 spent in the USA). Christmas-related industries account for almost one-third of annual retail activity in both countries.
So says Ruth Grayson in her Grove Spirituality booklet Reviving Advent, Reclaiming Christmas. Ruth offers an intriguing suggestion: that if we get Advent right, it will address many of the issues we face in celebrating Christmas.
My study has three main aims. First, I suggest that the best antidote both to the dominance of the market and the demands of the church in the pre-Christmas season and at Christmas itself is a re-thinking and revival of our Advent practices. We need to set these firmly in the context of preparation for Christ’s coming, and to separate them as far as possible from the commercialism that pervades the season.
Secondly, whether we regard Advent as anticipation of the birth or of the return of Christ, I maintain that our preparations for the two events should be the same. Throughout the book, I will explore the tension between our religious practices and our consumer habits. Twin themes in the book are gifts and giving on the one hand, and finding new ways of observing Advent on the other. By the end of the study, the two themes will ideally become inextricably linked.
Thirdly, I am attempting to fill an apparent gap in the material available to churches, groups, and individuals on this subject. Unlike Lent, for which many study guides exist, there are relatively few works on Advent. In view of the importance of Christmas in the church calendar, it is remarkable that Advent generates far fewer resources than Lent for study and prayer. Perhaps this itself indicates a lack of time to devote to quiet reflection, in our various groups and churches, during the frenetic festive season.
After exploring the origins of Advent and the stories of the birth of Jesus, she looks at biblical texts on the preparation for the coming of Messiah, and in particular the role of John the Baptist.
John answers their question as to how they should prepare to meet the Messiah thus: ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise’ (v 11). Similarly, specific groups such as soldiers and tax collectors are enjoined to treat people fairly and not to exert undue pressure on anyone (vv 12–14)…
To add to the other ironies of the season, our actual practices tend to be the complete opposite of this advice. Instead of sharing the possessions, food and clothing that we already have, we often acquire more of them in our Christmas preparations. It could be argued that we are acquiring more in order to give away more, but that is not the point. Rather, it is that many of us—whose circumstances are affluent by the standards of most of the world—already have more than enough for our own needs and could find ways of sharing it with those who have less than we do (see Matt 6.19–21). Advent and Christmas could become, literally, a heaven-sent opportunity to put into practice the ideas of jubilee—not just of absolving impoverished peoples of their debts but of actually helping to pay those debts.
After then exploring the issues around our expectation of Jesus’ return, she comes back to the question of how we celebrate in the present, and has some radical suggestions about the church calendar and how we use it:
One way of taking the pressure off Christmas Day within the church might be to redefine the calendar limits of Advent itself. Originally, it lasted longer than four weeks. It might be worth restoring this longer period, as still observed in the Orthodox tradition. It could begin on Christ the King Sunday, one week before the present Advent Sunday… Such a change could be marked symbolically by lighting a central candle on the wreath on Christ the King Sunday, to signify Jesus’ centrality to the whole season. Normally this candle is not lit until Christmas Day. But since it symbolizes Christ’s eternal kingship, lighting it then would be symbolic of the continuing link between the two days.
It may also be possible to reschedule church services and activities so that more of them take place within this period: the so-called ‘Twelve Days of Christmas,’ which end with Epiphany. Instead of cramming extra carol services, nativity plays, and children’s events into the fortnight before Christmas and thus appearing to endorse a very narrow interpretation of the nativity, some of these could well be held afterward. This would, in turn, clear the way for churches to offer a very different pro- gramme during much of December, allowing for quiet retreats, ‘shopping-free’ days, and services encouraging reflection and meditation.
As we look forward to our preparations for Advent, here is a reminder of some relevant posts from the past:
Should Lent and Advent Swap? which explores many of the same issues as Ruth does in her booklet.
Making Sense of the Second Coming which looks at how to interpret the puzzling passage in Matt 24
Jesus Wasn’t Born at Christmas which looks at the issues round dating the birth
Preaching on Advent 1 offers reflections on the lectionary readings
The Meaning of the Sheep and the Goats tackles the common misunderstanding of Matt 25
How Should we Read Mark 13 addresses the issues in the passage related to Matt 24
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?