What we Americans call “The Holidays” begins on Thanksgiving (or before) and continues through New Year’s Day. It is a time of eating, drinking, and spending, with distinctive decorations, sounds, and stories, and with a seemingly endless round of activities. It is also a time of generosity and service to those in need. It puts before us images and expectations of happy families and friends, with everything coming together just right, maybe even a “Christmas miracle.”
While some of us do experience such happiness, or some of it, many of us are painfully confronted with other realities – loneliness, loss, family tension, stress, exhaustion, and a sense of disappointment, if not failure. “The Holidays” are probably a mixed bag for most of us. How welcome, then, is the gift of Advent.
Advent is different from “The Holidays” even though it happens at roughly the same time. It looks, feels, smells, and sounds different. It holds off the Church’s celebration of Christmas until December 25, a celebration that is then kept for Twelve Days, continuing past the time when “The Holidays” have been packed up and put away. Thankfully, the Episcopal Church does a pretty good job of keeping Advent in all its difference, because we need it.
I used to be quite Puritan about all this, wanting the whole world to keep Advent and to keep Christmas away until the 25th. But it is a losing battle and only leads to frustration and needless isolation. “The Holidays” are our culture’s way of marking the end of the year and I join in, trying to make the best of its joys while being sensitive to its difficulties. Advent in the Church, then, becomes a welcome space apart and away from what is going on all around us. It offers something different, something which allows for reflection and perspective.
That would be welcome enough in itself, but Advent also provides us with an opportunity to be honest about life’s difficulties. The readings, music, and prayers put us in touch with the prophets, with John the Baptist, and with Mary and Joseph before Jesus was born. They allow us to see and admit that all is not right with the world, including with ourselves, and they also invite us to hope in a God who will put things right, even if that is hard to see at the moment.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu often told how, during the Apartheid years in South Africa, he would go around telling suffering people that God was in charge. Then he would go to his prayers and ask God, “Why can’t you make it more obvious that you are in charge?’ That is the spirit of Advent. And that spirit will take us to Christmas with honest and open hearts, remembering that the baby of Bethlehem became the young man who was executed on the cross and rose from the dead, filling us with Holy Spirit, inviting us to trust that God is love.
The Very Rev. Dr. John P. Downey is Dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie.