“For nearly one thousand five hundred years Christians have spent the days of Advent not in passive inaction, but in activities strenuous and profitable: they have prepared themselves by scrubbing and cleaning their lives, by examining and repairing their souls – even as people generally prepare themselves body and home to receive a visitor of ineffable importance.” (Walter Wangerin, Preparing for Jesus)
In getting ready for an Advent Sunday school class, I encountered this wisdom from Walter Wangerin. From a young age, I understand Advent to be about waiting and preparation. But, my childhood perspective on waiting included decorating the house, setting up nativity scenes (sans baby Jesus), reading Christmas picture books, baking Christmas cookies and driving around the neighborhood admiring Christmas lights. It was a fun kind of preparation that had little to do with self-examination or reflection. Lent is a time of fasting, but Advent? Advent is part of the “holiday season.” It’s intended to be joyous.
Spring cleaning does not strike me as joyous or fun. Yet, a spiritual spring cleaning is Advent’s purpose, as Walter Wangerin rightly observes. Ironically, we complain of the strenuousness of the holidays; in addition to our regular responsibilities of work, school and parenting, we add shopping, decorating, partying and sending gifts and cards. Is this kind of strenuous activity good for our souls?
Long before Christmas became commercialized, Christians spent the weeks before the Feast of Christmas getting their hearts and their lives ready to receive Jesus. For me, “scrubbing and cleaning” my life to receive a “guest of ineffable importance” includes prayer and self-examination. If I took Advent preparation seriously, I would carve out space in my schedule and my heart space to acknowledge where I have hurt myself and others over the course of the year and then seek reconciliation and forgiveness. In this way, Advent would look more like Lent than it does now.
Spending Advent fasting and praying collides with our culture’s obsession with the holidays. This November was the first in my memory in which neighbors decorated their homes and set up their artificial Christmas trees a week before Thanksgiving. A co-worker said that he recently heard a news story that businesses are vying for Thanksgiving to be moved earlier in November to allow a longer shopping season between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For many of us, Advent is not a time of scrubbing the house clean, but of gluttony. We stuff our schedules, our stomachs and our spirits with whatever we believe will make us happy – music, new gadgets or clothes, great deals, sweets. Even Coca-Cola advertises with a joyous Santa Claus who promises if we open a can of Coke, we will “open happiness.”
Could we participate in the joyous anticipation of Christ’s incarnation while still repairing our souls? Maybe the answer to this conflict between fasting and feasting is to intentionally make time for both in the days before Christmas. For me, this has meant purposefully creating margins in my schedule. We did not decorate a Christmas tree this year. I have not said “yes” to every party invitation received or to every goodie bag that has arrived at the office. I have sought to maintain my regular rhythm of prayer rather than set it aside for the sake of holiday commitments. My husband and I decided not to exchange gifts with one another. These are small steps to be sure. They are a beginning and a way to move toward Advent’s true gifts of preparation without abandoning the things I love about the holidays.
How about you? How are you preparing for Jesus this Advent?
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.