In reality, Advent is a preparation for the threefold coming of Christ; that is, it is commemorative of His historical coming in time, it prepares for His mystical coming into the hearts of men now, in the immediate present, and it looks forward to His final coming in the general judgement at the end of the world.
— With Christ Through The Year, Bernard Strasser, O.S.B.
Complaints about the over-commercialization of Christmas go back at least as far as Lucy’s sotto voce revelation to Charlie Brown about the “big eastern syndicate” that was running the whole racket. Annual complaints about Yule-creep have become an annual tradition unto themselves. It wouldn’t be Fall without that creeping tension as everyone waits for the first note of Christmas music to show up, like the first swallow returning to San Juan Capistrano (though in point of fact, they’re actually hitting the road for Argentina in October).
All eyes are peeled for the first sighting of decorations for sale, reliably in the larger craft and hobby stores around Labor Day. Strings of orange lights are now par for the course in Halloween decorating, and forget about Thanksgiving. If you take part in any of the local Turkey Trot 5Ks on Thanksgiving morning, you’re as likely to see as many people dressed as elves and reindeer as you are pilgrims and Indians.
So it’s no wonder that by Christmas afternoon most everyone is done with a capital D. Box it up and get it out of here so we can at least sip our New Year’s cocktails in peace before grunting our way through the interminable grayness of JanuFebruMarch.
The antidote to the three month Blitzenkrieg is Advent. Dr. Russell Moore recently wrote about this recently in a piece on Christmas carols generally and hymnody in particular. The opening anecdote:
This guy started by lampooning one pop singer’s Christmas album, and I found myself smiling in agreement on how awful it is. But then he went on to say that he hated Christmas music across the board. That’s when I started to feel as though I might be in the presence of the Grinch. But then this man explained why he found the music so bad. It wasn’t just that it was cloying. It’s that it was boring.
“Christmas is boring because there’s no narrative tension,” he said. “It’s like reading a book with no conflict.”
Now he had my attention.
The narrative tension comment caught my eye. If ever a moment was pregnant (pun intended) with narrative tension, it’s the mystery of the Incarnation, that moment when the Author of the story shows up in its very pages to show the other characters a way out. It’s simultaneously the climax and opening the greatest story that ever was. To put it in Shakespearean terms: we’re reading Act III, the traditional high point of action in his plays, over and over without participating in either the rising tension of Acts I and II or the denouement of Acts IV and V. We’d get pretty sick of Hamlet if we only watched him stabbing Polonius over and over.
If Christmas lacks narrative tension, if it feels incomplete or somehow inauthentic, one response is to restore it to its proper context within the larger drama. Not only can we approach the day itself refreshed, the pent-up joy of preparation demands more than a single day from us. How much extra time? Would twelve days do it? The Church in her wisdom seems to think so.
The days are shorter and the weather (at least in this part of the world) tends to be less agreeable. We owe it to ourselves - our sanity if no other reason - to take time, slow down, and enjoy the meditative and, yes, penitential relief that Advent offers. We diminish the joy of Christmas not a single bit by taking time to prepare, slowly if possible, but at least mindfully if not. This is written, incidentally, not in a silent fortress of Christmas rectitude. We’re playing the music here, too, and goodness knows that the Christmas cookies from Trader Joe’s showed up about a week ago.
The point is that a little leavening goes a long way.