The Christian year begins on Sunday, December 2nd this year, with the beginning of Advent—so for western Christians, now is the time to take stock of the year past and to make resolutions for the future as we once again begin to communally join ourselves to the story of God’s Incarnation as a human baby, his maturation, his passion, death, resurrection and ascension. Unlike the secular New Year, Christian advent celebrations are not the time for drinking, fireworks, sparkly dresses or midnight kisses. Advent is, instead, a season of repentance, fasting, waiting, longing.
It is no wonder that few Christians actually observe advent, with descriptors like those: after all, repentance and fasting are just so gloomy. What’s more, Advent doesn’t sell: you can’t market repentance and fasting, which is why the only remnants of the traditional advent remaining in western culture are waiting to open Christmas presents and longing for the new iPad mini. Now that sort of waiting, that sort of longing is the stuff retail dreams are made of. Begin and end the season with the two biggest shopping days of the year (in the US at least—Black Friday and the “Day after Christmas Sales”) and, voila! you have a season almost specially designed for any post-industrial western economy. It seems that John Bowring, a 19th century governor of Hong Kong, was right when he said, “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.” Or, in the words of Tom Lehrer, “God rest ye merry merchants, may he make the yuletide pay.”
Last year at this time, I wrote a post against the early celebration of Christmas because it makes the birth of Jesus the end of the story, rather than the beginning of the ongoing story of the restoration of creation. While this is still very much the case, the loss of Advent means the loss of more than a historical narrative or the loss of the practice of waiting—it is the loss of a future narrative, of a future hope, too.
Since the Middle Ages, Christians have not read the various nativity accounts or even the famous prophetic passages from Isaiah (Behold, a virgin shall conceive…) during Advent. Instead, the church readings have been from the book of Revelation, that obscure apocalyptic vision describing the final overthrow of evil and the restoration of creation. Why read such potentially difficult and even disturbing texts? Because these readings remind Christians that the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas is not merely a historical event—we are not merely reliving the past as we examine ourselves, pray and repent in light of Jesus’ birth. We are actively examining ourselves, praying and repenting in anticipation of Jesus’ future coming. In light of such a great and terrible hope—the expectation that the living God will return to judge and restore his creation—shopping till we drop, profiting on the nativity scene, and looking forward first and foremost to our gifts Christmas morning around the tree is a sort of sacrilege, a denial of the God-made-man born into poverty and laid in a manger where cattle fed.