An exhausted young woman, arms full of packages and shopping bags, collapsed into a chair in the mall food court. It was only 10:00 a.m., yet she and her friend already had been shopping for four hours. The two friends began talking about the hectic pace of the holidays and what it was doing for their holiday spirit. One woman said, “I can’t deal with all the crowds, the endless wrapping of gifts, the obligatory parties and events, and the tit-for-tat gift giving into which I feel compelled to participate.” Her friend said, “Why can’t we just take a vacation after Thanksgiving that would last all the way up until December 24th?” The young mother said, “Wouldn’t that be great!” After catching their breath, and gulping down what remained of their “low-fat, vanilla skinny lattes,” they got up and off they went to next store, and the hustle and bustle of yet another 75% off sale. This was not time for a vacation, a respite, a moment of relaxation. There were presents to be bought and deals to take advantage of.
Two days ago, we all experienced the most hectic and active holiday celebrated in our culture. “Wait,” you may say, “Thanksgiving was three days ago.” I am not talking about Thanksgiving. I’m referring to that holiday which we call “Black Friday.” Like the young woman in the mall, some of us last Firday, donned our shopper’s clothes, and with coupons in hand, we hit the mall, the shopping centers, and the stores. It was a feast of capitalism that was ripe for the taking which included 50% off pricing, “BOGO’s” (Buy One, Get one free) and free gift wrap. In my previous life, every December I was knee deep in this consumerism festival. As a Retail Buyer, I worked in the corporate offices of one of the largest retailers. “Black Friday” was crucial for buyers, because it was on this day that we moved our profitability out of the “red” and into the “black.” It was a stressful time in retail because an entire year’s profits for the line of products we managed, could hinge on this single day. We merchants would spend the entire year selecting the best value items, the best gift gadgets, and the best pricing from our vendors so we could insure that our stores on this day, this single day, could beat out their competitors.
The Church is called to stand in contrast to the norms of life we find all around us, yet we have a mission to be a reflection of the Lord, the light to the world. Today’s gospel, “Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” One way we can be counter-cultural is by embracing the spiritual disciplines of the Advent tradition. The heart of the season of Advent can be found in today’s gospel reading. While the rest of the world is already celebrating Christmas, we the church, if she is following her tradition, is called into a period of anticipation, a respite of waiting, watching, and praying. As Christians, we are encouraged to reject the anxiety and busi-ness of life, and rest in a blessed peace. It is a difficult thing to do in our Fast food, instant access, higher speed, 4G world, which celebrates the “give it to me, I want it now,” mentality, because the idea of taking time for waiting, watching, and praying is not natural it seems.
In this holiday season, our neighbors and friends all seem to want to jump past Thanksgiving and move directly to the manger, but Advent is supposed to be a time for spiritual discipline, a time to recognize our calling into a four week journey that leads up to the blessed Nativity. Advent is a time to for us to slow down, to enter prayerful reflection, to wait and watch. This discipline however requires trust, and trust is the heart of faith. Trust is about releasing our desire to control, to be in charge, to live in certainty, and trust allows us space to embrace our dependence on God and the mystery of faith.
We live in faith, when the world in many cases has forgotten that faith is really the meaning of the season. The commercialization of the holidays may even cause us to fall into the tragedy of believing the Nativity of Our Lord has become a motivation for mere economic success. Forget Halloween, forget Thanksgiving, there is no time for anticipation here, we have moved on to the manger. We want it now! We focus so much on gifts, buying, wrapping, hanging, and parties that the “babe in the manger” for some, is merely a sweet story of a poor family who lived long, long ago and a fateful night, they experienced a miraculous birth. We have strayed so much from the “reason for the season” that the story of Jesus’ birth rivals that of a transformed story of an ancient church saint named Nicholas. For Christians, the Nativity is not just some fairy tale story. It is the beginning of our story of salvation in Christ. It was a miraculous birth and yet, it was so much more.
In four weeks we will celebrate the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but not for merely a solitary day. On December 26th, the rest of the world will take down the trees, put away the lights, and the focus will shift to a different holiday New Year’s Eve; yet, we Christians still will be celebrating. For twelve more days, we will sing Christmas carols, our Christmas lights will still burn, our holiday greenery will still be hung, and celebration will continue. Christmas Day will not be the culmination of the season for us, it will be the beginning. It will not be a time to put things away, but it will be the time to deck the halls, hang the tensile, and let the party begin. There is a connection between the first coming of Christ as a babe in the manger, and the future return of Christ. When Christ returns it will not be the end of our story, but it will be the beginning of the new age. The Church celebrates the Nativity not as the end of the season, but we celebrate it as the beginning. The question with which we will struggle over the next few weeks is whether can we patiently wait and watch and pray for the day the celebration truly begins. Will we be able to wait patiently, watch diligently, and pray faithfully as we anticipate the day Christ returns and that celebration will truly begin? Advent draws us into the hope, the patient hope of waiting for Christ to return.
God gives us strength to wait and watch and pray. For now, at least in the church, we wait, with no greenery in the church, no Christmas carols for hymns, and the color purple all around. We wait in anticipation because the reason for the season is Jesus Christ and we wait for “God with us.” Are you finding it difficult to live in this period of anticipation. Is your tree already up and the tensile hung? Don’t panic, it’s ok! You have not broken any Advent rubrics. There are ways by which, you can embrace this respite of watching and waiting. Observing a Holy Advent is really pretty simple. Wait and Watch and pray. You can observe a simple practice each day, by taking upon yourself an intentional discipline of quiet prayer. You can simply place an Advent wreath on your dining table, light the candles as we do in church, and then over the next four weeks, share a special prayer prior to dinner. You can easily carve out five or ten minutes out of your day to sit quietly and allow God’s presence to wash over you.
Embrace this Advent season, and try to avoid the hustle and bustle all around you. Take time to rest in the assurance that the Promised One of God is coming, and trust that no matter what we do or fail to do in your holiday preparations, Christ will come. We have strength in the Spirit to wait and watch, to stand in contrast to the busi-ness all around us. Paul wrote a wonderful encouragement to the church in Corinth, “just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end.” Advent is our spiritual vacation from the hustle and bustle, the crowds, the anxiety, and the craziness of this time of year. I encourage you to embrace a Holy Advent. Quiten your spirit, spend some time with Our Lord, rest in the promises of God. Relax and experience the holy tension of waiting and watching and praying as we anticipate the blessed coming of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.