December 2014

The contradictions of Advent

For more years than I like to recall, the liturgical seasons of Advent, Lent and Easter have exerted a kind of push-pull in me, something like theology versus society, or Church versus ‘the world’, writes Judith Scully.

BY Judith Scully

We’ve just had our annual early December discussion. The male side of the relationship wants to edge the house with eye-catching lights that flash at intervals and, as usual, I would rather their installation waited until Christmas Eve. And there you have it – an image of the two sides of my Advent.

While what seems to be the whole world would have me believe that these four weeks are about Father Christmas and shopping, the Church tells me it’s Advent and focuses on God’s presence in the world, then, now and in the future.

In Australia December is the frantic end time of the year. There are Christmas parties, school breakups, the joys or angst of gift shopping and that perennial, whose turn is it to ‘do’ Christmas this year? From mid-November lights and baubles dazzle the eye, ears try to tune out the same seasonal songs that play in every store, heads are filled with lists of things to do and buy.

I am caught between opposing cultures. Do I spend December preparing to celebrate Christ’s presence in the world? Or do I celebrate Christmas by anticipation until the day after Christmas, when the last bit of wrapping paper is stuffed in the bin and I ponder ways to use up left over Christmas pudding?

For more years than I like to recall, the liturgical seasons of Advent, Lent and Easter have exerted a kind of push-pull in me, something like theology versus society, or Church versus ‘the world’.

The institutional Church’s approach to the things of God can be pretty grim, wrapped as it is in theology-speak and practices linked to cultures that have long gone. Even if I wanted to, mostly I am just too busy with everyday life to sift through the theological language looking for a relevant twenty-first century connection. Like the ugly sisters trying on the glass slipper, I choose a popular image or two and hope it is a good religious fit. I suppose this explains why I decorate a metal stand with cute little hanging angels and give it more prominence than the crib.

In my lead up to Christmas with all its expectations, God can take a back seat. I receive cards with wildly inappropriate graphics and greetings from people I would assume know better. I search through the children’s section of two large bookstores and find a variety of books featuring Father Christmas, but only one that tells Luke’s story of the first Christmas. I see Advent calendars filled with chocolates or toys to count down the days. TV offers something called “Twelve Ways to Christmas” – ways to shop, decorate, cook and wrap – that will guarantee your Christmas sparkles. There’s even another show that helps you to “çhoose the booze to give you Christmas spirit”.

There’s a tension in following Christ and it comes to the forefront in seasons like Advent and Christmas. How much and in what way should I show my beliefs and express my faith?

Many years ago my sister-in-law brought me back a carved wooden set of nativity figures from the Holy Land. When my newly married daughter expressed a wish to have a crib for her own home, I decided to buy one to put with her pre-Christmas birthday gift. I told her non-religious husband what I had bought and I felt fussily religious. Here we were, in a large shopping centre, Chrismasey décor tinkling, blinking and waving overhead, and I was talking about something that he perceived as distinctly religious – and he didn’t know how to respond and neither did I.

There’s no either/or about Advent and Christmas. Like the first Christmas, it’s full of contradictions. The Son of God born to unimportant parents and cradled in a manger. A Messiah heralded by centuries of prophesy, but unrecognised except by night shepherds and some travelling astronomers. A middle-Eastern child born in an occupied country. We invest God with power and might, but the God who is born into our world at Christmas is not the God of power, but the God of helplessness and vulnerability. The rules of how things should be don’t apply.

Possibly the most life-changing words ever written were these: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. And this is how God chose to be revealed to us – as a baby. Babies are tough, but oh so vulnerable. They carry within them a future that is chock full of possibilities. They snuggle up in one’s arms in a wordless recognition of security. Their neediness could break your heart and exasperate you to the edges of reason and back. They bring out tenderness in the most unexpected people. They link the past with the future.

The birth of the God-made man speaks to the heart and human experience. Every one of those women and men I see in my crowded shopping centre knows about longing, about desire and frustration, and also about the joy that can break in to the most ordinary of times.

It’s said often that Christmas is for children. Not so! Advent and its culmination are very adult. I will remember that as I negotiate, and enjoy, the jumble of images and symbols that make up my Advent.

And yes, our house is already twinkling with Christmas lights.

Judith Scully

Judith Scully is a retired pastoral associate. She lives among the gumtrees in Warrandyte Victoria, where she posts on her website WORDS from the Edge Her first book, "A Gentle Unfolding", will be published in August 2018.

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