Posted by: Johnold Strey | December 15, 2008

The Wisdom of Waiting

No, this is not a post about abstinence before marriage.  It’s about keeping Christmas out of Advent.

It was mid-September 2000.  I had just returned for my last year at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, following my vicar (intern) year at St. Paul’s First Lutheran Church in North Hollywood, California.  My wife and I were married for just a few months, mere youths in our early- and mid-20’s, respectively.  Even though we had only been married for a short time, Emily knew my liturgical tendencies well.  So, as we headed up the escalator in a major Milwaukee department store, she knew exactly what my reaction was going to be when she discovered what was lurking behind me on the second floor.

Her exact words were, “Johnold, don’t turn around.”  I knew the translation: “If you turn around, you won’t like what you’re going to see.”

And there it was (cue inspirational orchestral fanfare), in all its mid-September glory, a ginormous, fully lit, decorated, garland, ornaments and all, Christmas tree.

Did I mention it was the middle of September?

And therein lies the problem.  Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier every year.  Yes, there is still the annual hype (and Walmart stampedes) the day after Thanksgiving when the Christmas shopping season is thought to begin, but the reality is that the secular Christmas season starts even earlier than that.  Mid- to late-October appears to be the norm in many stores around my neighborhood, and thanks to our Milwaukee mall experience several years ago, I can vouch that in some places the season actually begins before  Midwest leaves turn to fall colors.

I know I’ve already made some statements about this in a previous post, “Advent Wreath 101” (which, by the way, has been the most popular post on this blog to date since its launch — I guess everyone wants to know about Advent wreaths and why there’s a pink candle for week three).  That said, I’d like to expand further on some of those thoughts in this post.

There is no commandment that says, “Thou shalt not celebrate Christmas prior to 5:00 p.m. on December 24.”  You will not go to liturgical hell if your church starts its Christmas celebration during the weeks of Advent.  But there is a good deal of wisdom in waiting for Christmas to arrive before celebrating Christmas.  So, while not implying that canon law is violated by celebrating Christmas in Advent, please permit some random thoughts about the wisdom of waiting a bit later to start your local congregation’s Christmas observance.

  • banner-advent-2At least 4,000 years passed between the first promise of the Messiah (Genesis 3:15) and the actual arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  God’s people had to get used to the idea that God will work on his timetable, which isn’t always our timetable.  We have only seen half that amount of time pass since Jesus’ own promises to return and our time now.  The idea of waiting patiently for the coming Savior and preparing for his arrival has been reality for God’s people throughout history.  We would serve our people well giving them a sense of waiting and watching before the time of celebration.
  • The “instant gratification” culture of America does us no favors.  In an age of instant coffee, instant messaging, and instant gratification, who wants to wait for anything anymore?  But the church has a responsibility to teach people to “wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).  Be patient!  God will come in his time, which is always the right time.
  • There is a bit of an oddity in the fact that we don’t see much of a problem celebrating Christmas during Advent, but we recognize the inappropriateness of celebrating Easter during Lent.  Our Easter celebrations could hardly be Easter celebrations without the focus on our Savior’s Passion that Lent and Holy Week provide.  We subdue music, omit the main song of praise and “Alleluia,” and minimalize the decor in Lent.  Then the return of festive music, previously omitted canticles, “Alleluia,” and white banners, paraments, and flowers have a much stronger impact than they would otherwise.  Now compare the Lent-Easter transition with the Advent-Christmas transition.  Are we perhaps missing a useful psychological component in our Christmas celebration if we start the celebration long before the occasion?
  • The time before the holidays is about as hectic as it can get for most people.  The Church would serve her members well by providing an Advent sanctuary from the hectic, secular Christmas all around us.  Let the physical sanctuary be a spiritual sanctuary from the hustle, bustle, clamor, and jostle all around us in December.  Worshippers probably crave that more than we realize!  A quiet, contemplative Advent focus is one excellent way to achieve that.

This post is by no means the final word on the benefit of Advent as a time of preparation, but hopefully there is some good food for thought here that will encourage you to make it that in your local setting.  To that end, have a blessed Adventtide!

Prepare my heart, Lord Jesus; Turn not from me aside,
And help me to receive you This blessed Adventtide.
From stall and manger low Come now to dwell within me;
I’ll sing your praises gladly And forth your glory show.

(Christian Worship #14, stanza 4)

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