Unless you were hiding under a rock for the past few weeks you are well aware that the holiday shopping season is upon us here in the States. The newspapers have extra girth owing to the advertisements. The television commercials have fully shifted their strategy to accentuate the joys of gift buying. And stores are stocked with merchandise, most of which is on sale.
Back in the good old days, normal people waited until well after Thanksgiving to start their Christmas shopping. But in the past few years, stores have opened earlier and earlier on Black Friday until now Black Friday starts the weekend before Thanksgiving. The mad rush of consumerism pauses only for a few hours on Thursday before recommencing and carrying through the night. We just can’t wait to get all those deals, buy all those gifts, and maybe make just a few purchases for ourselves. Advertisers used to kind of joke about “Christmas in July,” but now that’s about when the holiday shopping season begins for real.
Americans’ inability to wait until Friday to experience Black Friday is replete with deep and multilayered symbolism (and subtle hints of irony). Our inability and unwillingness to wait for shopping season stands in shocking contrast to the other season that some of us try to observe: Advent.
Advent is a time of waiting, longing, hoping. During Advent, Christians relive the time preceding Jesus’ birth and recognize our ongoing expectation of His return. Advent is not so much a celebration as it is a period of time during which we wait to celebrate.
Now if ever there was a four-letter word for our generation, it is “wait.” We don’t want to wait, we don’t like to wait, and we don’t think we should have to wait. We think waiting is a waste of time.
But for Christians, time waiting is not time wasted.
For us, waiting is an important character-forming practice. When we wait with intentionality, we remind ourselves that all is not right with the world or with ourselves. When we wait, we long for something more, something to come, something that we cannot force or persuade. Waiting puts us in our proper place: not as grabbers, getters, doers and drivers, but as helpless sinners who cannot find fulfillment apart from the gift of God in God’s good timing. And it is for this gift that we wait.
I think what confounds me (and maybe others) about Advent is that it is not a four-week celebration of Christmas. It’s tempting to treat Advent as an extension of Christmas – as if Christmas were just so much fun that it could not be contained to one day so we Christians decided to make it a month-long season of parties, gifts, decoration and joy. Rather than wait for Christmas with expectation, anticipation and hope, we go ahead and get the party started. A tragic consequence that comes from conflating Advent with Christmas is that Christmas can become a big letdown – the end of the celebration rather than the celebration we have all anticipated.
At my worst, I celebrate Advent as a synonym for Christmas. At my best, I do not celebrate Advent so much as observe it. When I observe Advent well, I do so with a “now and not yet” spirit. To observe Advent is to recognize that the work of Jesus has begun and not concluded. Advent has elements of joy to the world (because the Lord has come), but is more a cry of “O come Emmanuel” (because the world deeply needs delivery).
When I jump the gun and celebrate Christmas rather than observe Advent, I make no room for waiting, have no time for pining, recognize no darkness to be broken by the morn of Christ’s second coming. When I replace Advent with a month of Christmas, I replace being hopeful (longing with confidence that God will keep His promises) with being happy (satisfied with the way things are). As Paul reminds us in Romans 13, salvation is near and is drawing nearer; salvation is begun and not yet concluded. We should celebrate the nearness of salvation and we should long for the completion that comes with Christ’s second coming.