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My anti-Advent wreath

Photo by Max Beck on Unsplash.

Our congregation has gotten in the habit of lighting the Advent wreath at the beginning of worship each Sunday in Advent. It’s a habit we’ve adopted in my family as well. This morning I awoke after an exhausting Sunday blizzard of activities to my wife lighting each of the four candles, praying with my 8-month-old daughter, Joanna, as she did.

Christmas advertisers have caught on to the significance of the words of our Advent candles. Peace, love, hope, and joy can be found in the promise of a new iPhone or a beautifully wrapped Lexus that we ought to buy our spouse. The capitalistic impulse of Christmas has become the self-righteous sermon fodder of us pastors. Like the Grinch, we say, “Christmas isn’t about the gifts…” As true as this is, I’ve also never liked the fundamentalist move of Christians this time of year who justify themselves in protest saying, “Keep the Christ in Christmas!” I even had a high school bible teacher who told us one day that he didn’t believe in Christmas trees — they were, he said, a pagan symbol. Instead, he and his kids had a “Christmas rock” in their living room.

Sure, all the buying gifts is silly and downright tiring. I ran into a church member at an outdoor gear shop this last weekend, we both agreed, “We can’t wait for Christmas to be over.” I’ve even been surprised at how little I’ve listened to Christmas music this year. Usually, I’m a Christmas music pariah who throws on the yuletide tunes at the beginning of November. But not this year. This year my passion for Christmas reads about the same as does the Amazon message I keep getting while buying Star Wars legos for my nieces and nephews, “Will arrive after Christmas.”

This year, if I’m honest, I’ve been fighting with an anti-Advent wreath in my heart. The candles are “anxiety, exhaustion, despair, and self-loathing.” I can talk about peace on the first Sunday of Advent, but, in truth, this new COVID variant has got me emotionally stunted. All I want for Christmas is a few more people to show up to church, but to be honest, I don’t know if I should ask them to leave their homes.

I can proclaim joy on the second Sunday of Advent, but I am weary from the weight that us pastors have carried this fall. I’ve been told, ad nauseam, that “the future of the church is on your shoulders.” No wonder Atlas shrugged.

On the third Sunday of Advent, I offer people the promise of hope. But in order to hope, you have to trust your future to someone other than yourself. And I’m afraid to give God my church’s future, because if I do that, what will all these hours of overwork have meant?

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, at long last, we proclaim love. And we love love. I love love. Who doesn’t love love? After all, God is love (1 John 4:8)! One of the poisonous ironies of ministry is that pastors are great at loving other people but not as good at loving themselves. Like the Red House Painters lyric, we all need to be asked: “Have you forgotten how to love yourself?” The truth is, ministry can feel like a burden that is all work with no grace, all law with no gospel.

I plan to blow out the candles of my anti-Advent wreath on Christmas Eve. Not because I have secured enough mental health strategies to rediscover peace, joy, hope and love. The older I get, the more I realize those things are discovered not through my own work, but through my relationships with others. I plan to blow out my anti-Advent candles because there is still that pesky, persistent, stubborn tall white candle in the middle of the wreath — the Christ candle. And Christ’s light overcomes and surrounds my anxiety, exhaustion, despair, and self-loathing. It can be bright enough to shine amidst yours, too, if you let it.