“My God, it’s Advent already?” one of you asked! We’d begun announcements in worship about the greening of the sanctuary, new “stand-ins” for the characters of the creche’ and creche picture day. Ah, the on-set of added seasonal activities and anxieties!
But, as a pastor, amidst one of my busy seasons, I have a strategy that helps me cut through the overload — and loss — that Christmas can become. Back in the parish these last four years, I am increasingly finding more meaning in Christmas, and experiencing less of the harried din and exhaustion and let-down of its modern facsimile! What’s my secret? I feel free to drop out of many of the more secular or civil religion rituals associated with Christmas, and do some other things instead.
I can’t really claim that I have developed my own practice of the holidays. Maybe I’ve developed a thicker skin. Or some freedom as an empty-nester. Or less compulsion to do the celebration like we’re told everyone else is doing it.
Maybe my advantage is that on top of all the personal “seasonal extras” I’m faced with, I got a longer list of professional duties. Personal time and time off at Christmas — even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — aren’t church workers’ realities. This year feels extra crowded! (But so does every year…) And perhaps there’s a helpful discipline that comes of having enough work to not feel I have to shop or write Christmas cards!
It does feel like I’m marching to the beat of a different little drummer boy. But I don’t think he’s my own. Instead, I’m taking my cues from the church, who, in her wisdom, has given us seasons of days to wait and to watch. Then a run of days in which to see and respond.
Yes, Christmas is coming. And with it, so much glitter and twinkle. Food and drink and festivities in excess. Too much canned music. Too few heartfelt songs. All the cultural noise of the high holy days of the consumerist season that caps or even completes the worldy year.
But maybe we who go to church have other options. Or a call to resist! At least an alternative. Waiting. Watching in the dark. Listening for still small voice of the spirit or faint echos of an angel choir, or a baby crying in the cold night. And starting out anew when we hear or see the faintest glimmer of hope or even just starlight…
We are people who read old words. And light candles. Slowly. Week by week. Over the millennia. We get upset when hymnals muck with the words of our carols! And then for 12 days, we’re asked to show up and see no more or less than the wonder of a little baby.
It’s all so paced out for us. Almost slow motion. In a sense not so much has to happen. Well, except for the miracle of a birth of a baby. The deeper good news is, no matter what else we do or don’t do — and don’t get done — the baby is going to be born and Christmas comes anyway. Just as Dr. Seuss’ Whos in Whoville celebrated Christmas even though the Grinch had taken all their trappings.
Oh, yes, you wanted to buy a house and get it fixed up, and not only finish your degree, but also get your career going before you started a family. But it didn’t work like that. The baby came anyway. God’s time is funny that way.
In other words, I haven’t written a Christmas card for years, and I’ve given up feeling guilty about it. And last year’s broken, bare branch — that I pulled out of the construction site down the block– placed in a vase on the dining table (in lieu of a tree) with a few odd ornaments made me happy. Christmas will come anyway.
I’m not bothering with a lot of presents. Most of the people in my life, myself included, have more than we need. Well, most of us could use a bit more love — feeling it from others, sharing it with others, showing it to ourselves. This year, I’m excited about getting gifts for three families of kids. Otherwise, I’ll focus more on the intangibles.
One tradition suggests that four weeks of Advent lead us through Hope, Peace, Joy on the way to Love. And then there’s the twelve days to contemplate a child. So here’s my strategy for the next six weeks, something I can organize around despite everything else. Really, it’s just my interpretation of the church’s calendar. Contemplative in a practical sort of way — trying to pause so I can notice to and “humble down” enough to ask and be open to help. Here’s my schedule:
Dec 1-7: Look for hopeful signs in our world, near to home and at large. Focus my prayers on my hopes for others.
Dec 8-14: Watch for how peace happens between people, and ask for God’s help: that peacemakers may show up for me, and that I may even practice a little peace with others.
Dec 15-21: See what brings others and me joy. And recognizing those who are struggling with sorrow and sadness, see how I might share some joy.
Dec 22-25: How do I feel loved; how do I love? If these make such a difference, could I ask God at Christmas for the gift of either or both?
Dec. 25-Jan.6: Notice the children (even if they are in the form of adults!). Celebrate some child-likeness each day for therein I’m drawing near to the Christ child. And, perhaps, by grace, that will help me meet each person I encounter as a child of God.
In so doing, maybe I can keep Christmas. You too?
See you in church (because that helps too),