Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Many years ago, I remember dimly an exchange with my pastor (and eventual father-in-law) about Advent services at our little campus ministry in the desert.

Me:  “Why aren’t we singing Christmas songs?  It’s December!”
Him:  “Because it’s not Christmas yet.”
Me:  “Well that’s stupid.”
I may be ad libbing the last part, but if I didn’t actually say it, I’m sure I was thinking it.  Advent and Christmas are all sort of rolled together in a big gooey ball.  At least that’s how I used to look at it.  If it’s December, you’d best be singing Christmas songs in worship.  We only get to sing them for a few weeks each year, so don’t be stingy about it.  Nobody else is.
I always chuckle appreciatively at the exasperated comments of friends on Facebook and other places about how early Christmas arrives in the rest of our culture.  Halloween isn’t over yet and there are the Christmas songs beginning to be interspersed over the in-store speakers.  In between the black and orange crepe paper are glittering green and red things.  Isn’t it odd that celebrations of death and life should be bumped up against one another so unceremoniously?
Not really.
I mean, it’s annoying, to be certain.  It’s a growing demonstration of just how necessary it is in our culture that we constantly be buying something, or else everything grinds to a halt.  But death and life are ever mushed up against one another.  Maybe that’s part of what annoys us about art (or advertising) imitating life.
Advent is not a joyful time – not traditionally, at least.  It was a time of penitence.  A time of reflection on our lives and a recognition that we aren’t the people that we ought to be.  In that respect, the first season of a liturgical church year mirrors somewhat many of the thoughts that strike people around the beginning of the calendar year.  But unlike New Year’s Day, Advent doesn’t call us to more bold promises of changed behavior, resolutions of rightness.  It calls us to remember that we are incapable of these in any meaningful sense.  Whether we lose a few pounds, whether we treat people more kindly or dress differently makes no eternal difference.  At best we tweak our relationship with the people around us.  We are incapable, Advent reminds us, of tweaking our relationship with God.  We are, in fact, left to our own devices, dead before God.  Dead in our brokenness and sinfulness.  
Put that in your stocking and ho-ho-ho it.  
Four weeks of penitence, of repentance, of denying self through fasting from food, all of which was intended to lead us into a greater awareness of just how great our need for a Savior is.  Ever wonder why the third Sunday in Advent has a pink candle in the Advent wreath rather than a purple one?  It’s a sign of hope – excitement that the rigors of Advent are nearly over and the celebration of Christmas is almost here.  Hang in there, God has heard our prayers!  He’s going to answer them – soon!  
We’ve lost much of that sense of Advent though.  For many of us, it’s a gauntlet of friends and family and shopping and traditions and obligations that weighs us down in a much different way.  We’re not focused internally on our relationship with our God – He’s pushed to the periphery while we deal with the people around us, tweaking our relationships.  For others, Advent becomes a time of sorrow because of their current circumstances.  Rather than focusing on the God we love, they are crushed and pressed into thinking of their own loss and pain.  
We stumble into Christmas morning bleary-eyed.  Relieved in some ways that we can finally relax.  Christmas is here.  The shopping and wrapping and hand-wringing over finances is over.  The dinner parties and gatherings and carolings and bakings are finished.  No wonder we lament the early arrival of Christmas music each year in the stores – it’s a cruel trick, because we have at least two months to go before we can sing with any true meaning Joy to the World!
We lament the early arrival of Christmas music in the stores but demand it in our sanctuaries.  The world starts celebrating Christmas three months early, while in churches we celebrate it for two weeks after the rest of the world has put Christmas in the 50% off clearance bins.  We’re topsy turvy in what we want to experience and what we need to experience.  We want to focus only on the arrival, forgetting what precipitated it.  
Hopefully my congregation will be understanding – and hopefully I’ll be good at communicating – why we hold off full-force on the Christmas songs until Christmas Day.  I doubt they’ll be overly convinced, but hopefully they’ll exercise more tact in the discussion than I did with my pastor years ago.  That would certainly help me feel that It’s a Wonderful Life.  
(Which, incidentally, I’ve still never seen all the way through!)

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