An Advent Reflection: Holiday Angst

By the Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, vice president of engagement, director fo the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging, United Church Homes. Reprinted with permission.

These holidays from the end of November through the new year stress me out. This is not related to any past trauma or grief around this time of year, but to the conflict between our cultural/national holiday rituals and those that have been observed in the traditions of the Christian faith for centuries.

During the years I served as a local church pastor, I struggled to try to observe the intention of the season of Advent — the four weeks during which we are to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Because we start hearing Christmas carols in every public place beginning in October, members of every congregation I’ve ever been a part of expect that we will start singing Christmas carols beginning on the first Sunday in December. I realized early in my pastoral career that compromise was needed and consented to sing one Christmas song each week through Advent. Come Christmas Eve, it was all about Silent Night, Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and so on. And the Sunday after Christmas was again, almost all music, using any of the Christmas hymns that we hadn’t touched yet that year.

And yes, there were members of the church who complained that they were then tired of singing Christmas songs because they had been inundated with them since October out in the general world, and they were ready to pack up their trees and turn their playlists back to their non-holiday favorites as soon as December 27. But there really are 12 days in the season of Christmas, which usually includes two Sundays for more Christmas songs. And just as we “fight” the cultural expectation to wait until the 24th to sing them, we struggle to keep them going through January 6.

The Advent Focus

Since the fourth century, the focus of the Advent season has been not only to prepare for the anniversary of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but to anticipate the coming of Christ at the close of history. Along the way, some referred to Advent as “little Lent,” comparing it to the six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. Lent today continues to focus on self-reflection, prayer, fasting and repentance. Advent is a season of preparation and waiting.

And this may be the key to the stress between our culture and the Christian understanding of this season — it is around waiting. I do not observe this to be a highly held value in our world today. You want something? You go online and order it with the option to pay more for it to be delivered today. Don’t have the money to make that purchase? There are multiple lenders and companies willing to loan us the money to repay overtime with interest. We are an impatient culture and expect our whims and wants to be satisfied in our own immediate timeframe. (How many people purchased items for themselves in the sales the Friday and Monday following Thanksgiving?)

Spiritual Disciplines of Waiting and Preparing

Waiting and preparing are both practical and spiritual disciplines. They are made more difficult when marketers take our sacred songs and play them as we are filling our gas tanks, buying our groceries or making any other store purchases. I fear that our subconscious makes quicker connections between purchasing things than the words of the songs which reference God’s presence in the world. And I also wonder how our neighbors who are not Christian deal with all of these songs and messages.

Traditionally, each of the Sundays in Advent highlights a different theme: Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

Hope is not about making a list with the expectation that we will receive what we ask for. Hope is seeing beyond ourselves and finding strength to be able to participate in making the future better than the present or past. It allows us to trust in the guidance of the Spirit to lead us toward a new day.

Peace, particularly this year, is about the absence of warfare and fighting. Just as it is an understanding that through God, the unimaginable can happen — wolves and lambs can lay down together. The barriers and obstacles present in the world can be overcome.

Advent joy has nothing to do with receiving the item we hoped for. It is more than being happily surprised through some magical seasonal feeling. Instead, Advent joy is grounded in the feeling of being connected with all of creation. Joy is about giving and receiving and being connected, being whole.

And if we were to believe the movies at this time of year, the love in this season is of a romantic connection with an occasional reconciliation with estranged family members thrown in on the side. How do we remind ourselves about the love which God desires for the world?

Our popular culture has reimagined the reasons for the season in many more secular ways. For instance, we tell stories about having faith, about believing in a fictitious older man in a red suit. Or we know the story about the magic in the old black hat that brought life to a snowman. It is a long stretch from that children’s TV cartoon movie to the Christian understanding of God’s new life in the infant born in a manger or from the bishop, St. Nikolas, to Santa.

Even with all of my cynical angst between the larger culture and my faith tradition, in full confession, our house is fully decorated with the Christmas tree and lights, and Advent has just begun. Our small collection of Santas is huddled on the sofa table. The nativity sets are lit up on the shelves, complete with baby Jesus (some traditions set up the scenes of the nativity and wait until Christmas to place the baby at the center). And I have begun to access my Christmas music play list from my iCloud account as I drive to work and run errands.

But our Advent Calendar is set on the table with the 24 drawers ready to be opened as we prepare for the fullness of the Christmas season by marking each day to ease the waiting. I look forward to worshipping in my home church observing the Advent lessons. I try to be more diligent in daily reflection and reading centering me to wait and prepare in this season. And even though we exchanged gifts with our adult children and their spouses when we were all together over the Thanksgiving holiday, I relish the opportunity to prayerfully think of those with whom I will celebrate Christmas on December 25 as I prepare gifts for them, recognizing that these are mere tokens and reminders of the gift of life our Creator continues to offer us all.

As you live between the clashing symbols and traditions of the wider culture and our Christian faith, may you find ways to practice the spiritual disciplines of waiting and preparing to receive God’s love and joy, hope and peace which are so desperately needed in the world today.

For Reflection (either individually or with a group)

Read the blog. Read it a second time, maybe reading it aloud or asking someone else to read it aloud so you can hear it with different intonation and emphases. Then spend some time with the following questions with anything that helps you reflect more deeply.

  • How do you handle waiting? What helps you to better use an “advent” time of waiting?
  • As you have aged, what has your wisdom and experience taught you about waiting?
  • This Christmas season, for which one of the divine gifts of love, joy, hope, and peace are you in greatest need of right now?
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