Last week, I broke a sacred rule in the Hackenberg family: I listened to Christmas music before Thanksgiving.
This rule against playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving was created in counter-cultural response to the ridiculously extended Christmas season as marketed and twisted about by retailers. When I was young, the elaborate plastic wreaths and towers of Santa teddy bears appeared in stores a couple weeks before Thanksgiving. These days, I see Christmas displays before Halloween, after all of the well-planned parents (unlike me) have purchased their child’s annual flimsy-$5-superhero/superstar-makeover for four times its value. Hence, the no-Christmas music rule in favor of celebrating one holiday at a time, thank you very much.
Still, the urge for Christmas music overwhelmed me last week…not because I was in the Christmas spirit, but because I was in a very Advent spirit.
The church season of Advent begins on November 30 this year, the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. Congregations of many shapes and styles will light candles of hope, peace, joy and love in the four weeks preceding Christmas. Yet despite our tendency to view Advent simply as the ritual precursor to Christmas, in fact Advent is distinctively not about Christmas (or at least, not only about Christmas).
Advent is the season of waiting for God’s appearance, of watching for God’s miracles, and as such it is perhaps the most difficult of church seasons for Christians to observe (Christmas joy? Got it. Easter celebration? No problem. Lenten penitence? Bring on the guilt!). Still, of all the church seasons, Advent most closely reflects our everyday life experiences of uncertainty.
Peter Gomes, in his brilliant new book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, observes the church’s theological dilemma of waiting for God, especially in regards to the content of Jesus’ sermons:
“What Jesus proclaimed did not happen, nor has it yet; the glad tidings remain a proclamation of things to come. The world remains pretty much as it was when he preached his first sermon at Nazareth, and although there are many more Christians now, and the world is older, that Yum Yahweh—day of the Lord—appears no nearer now than it was at the time of Jesus’ proclamation.
“That, for example, is why Advent is a more painful season than Lent…Advent speaks of a perennial hope, a great expectation that, despite the language of the hymns that tell us that the day is drawing near and that light prevails over darkness, actually seems just like the ‘same old, same old.’ How many ‘theologies of hope’ can trump the stubborn facts of good news postponed?” (Gomes, Peter. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good about the Good News? New York: Harper Collins, 2007. 17.)
So I listened to Christmas music. Not the cheery, let’s-open-presents sort of Christmas songs (I skipped over those), but the kind of songs that conveyed the wonder of a birth in the midst of foreboding times. Songs of comfort for these days when fear is strong. Songs like lullabies of hope for easing fatigue. Songs that promise Emmanuel (“God with us”) just in time to save us from ourselves.
Probably I will keep listening to Christmas music in the weeks ahead…not because I am anxious for Christmas, but because I am poignantly aware these days that we are already living in Advent.