“For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:19-20).
The day is drawing nigh. We have been waiting for the coming of our Lord, the Advent of Jesus Christ, for just over two millennia now. But for just over four weeks, we have been waiting for Christmas. The season of Advent is the season we learn again what we have forgotten again: how to wait. But it’s a special kind of waiting, an active waiting. Advent is our dress rehearsal.
Dress rehearsals are the final rehearsals before the main attraction: full costumes, stage propped, spot lights on, everything ordinary strangely dimmed. Reality is altered. Advent is the time for the Church to decorate the world, to create the context to remember, and to deliver, the Advent message.
In ordinary times we brown-bag our Advent message and don’t bother wrapping it in the songs of the heavenly hosts, but only so we can share it at the table of IRS agents and other brown-bagging sinners. If God can wrap himself in swaddling sin (Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21) to deliver his message to the world, then surely the Church born of Christ should learn how to become all things to all people in everyday life (1 Cor. 9:22). So in ordinary time, we deliver our Advent message in any and every context.
But the season of Advent is different. ‘Tis the season we insist upon obnoxiously decorating everything around us, because Advent means nothing less than that everything around us will one day be altered. Sure, it at times can be a little forced—the begrudging dog in his jingle-bell sweater, the divorced family in the strained “family” photo, the holiday that invariably requires more work than work since it is a holiday built on relationships—but it’s also somehow irresistible. All the pretense. All the happy. Neighbors walk across the street, strangers talk in lines, people awkwardly sing at the door of others who awkwardly listen, people smile. We all roll our eyes just thinking about it, but we simply can’t resist it. Even soldiers stop shooting each other so they can sing together instead, to pretend, if only for a night, that the world is not at war, to pretend there really were peace on earth, good will to men (cf. “The Christmas Truce of 1914”).
The day after Christmas we may be back in our respective bunkers ready to fill the silence with shrapnel, the house with hostility, but we still can’t get the songs out of our heads. We may hate our ex-spouse till the day we die, but “Nurse, could you please put that ‘family’ photo right next to the heart monitor.” There is a hatred that lives in all of us—an inherent need to create a “them” to secure ourselves within an “us,” the need to accuse and to blame and to gossip—but there is also the love of an idea of not having to hate. We really just want to live at peace in a world that runs on fear, a world where love is always weaker than grief, where Goodbye is more enduring than Hello. The world we find ourselves hoping for just can’t be the one we find ourselves living in. So we settle for the one where we must compete and take and lock the doors and pick sides. Except on Christmas, that day imaginations run amok, the day for pretending peace on earth, good will to men, the day the world is permitted to hope.
Perhaps this is why Christmas festivity is both the most alien and the most contagious thing the Church has ever created. The world won’t copy our theology or our piety or our prayers, but the world will copy our holy days. It will not prepare for Christ’s coming but it will prepare for Christmas. This is simply because the Christmas message is little else than an articulation of the world’s longing from the other side of the promise. We all want peace, joy, love, and eternity more than we want power, but power is more believable on the surface where it is more available than hope. And indeed, the Church’s hope is in the exact the shape of the world’s longing. It’s just that we remember that our Longing was made flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14). It’s just that we believe Emmanuel (Mt. 1:23)—and so we wait, we hope for, Emmanuel (Rev. 21:3).