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Living Advent-urously

Tuesday, 6 December 2011  | Gordon Preece

Every Christmas recently there has been conservative lamenting of the absence of Christmas religious symbolism, banning of nativity plays or images in schools and public places. It is due at best to a misguided overdose of secular multicultural sensitivity or at worst to a zealously anti- Christian ‘religious’ secularism. Ironically, it rarely comes from Jews (who could teach us a lot about developing a distinctive minority culture), or Muslims, who believe in Jesus’ Virgin Birth. But most of the discussion doesn’t get much further than lack of tinsel, colour, song and celebration and the rights of Anglo-Saxon tradition in a multicultural society, except for a few relatively predictable Christian outbursts.

It is getting even harder to remember Christ at Christmas, but I suspect it’s more due to our view of time and money than a secular conspiracy. I heard about a woman who’d run out of patience after taking two young children Christmas shopping and just squeezing into the elevator after nearly losing one child in the doors. She let out a huge sigh and said, ‘Whoever invented Christmas should be found, strung up and shot.’ From the back of the elevator came a quiet calm voice saying, ‘Don’t worry, we already crucified him.’ You could have cut the air with a knife.

The pressure to perform though is particularly bad at Christmas—overwhelming pressure to finish the year’s work in order to take a Christmas break, pressure go to every party and Christmas event, to try everything epicurean while also dieting and gymning to keep the weight off, getting the perfectly useless or not cheap looking gift for everyone—‘forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us’. (For alternatives see Deborah Storie’s article in the last Engage.mail)

The pressure is also seen in the Christmas letters summarising the year, that outdo the Jones’, even the ‘Jesus’ Jones’. They tell you about their kid’s 99.9 in the HSC at their Christian school while leading their youth group, starring in the school play, organising a short-term mission trip to the 3rd world, raising maga-bucks for WV’s 40 Hour Famine, scoring the winning try or goal in the grandfinal and the family’s annual overseas holiday. They don’t tell you, of course, that they, the parent, didn’t get to see the grandfinal or the school play as they were working on a deadline (when I say that my wife always tells me ‘no-one will die’), they weren’t around to help when their child was having panic attacks during their final high school exams, and they spent half their time on holiday on line to the office or on facebook. And that their child used the 40 hr famine to cover for their anorexia, is ready to rebel, or take a year back-packing, at having to live out a Christian version of 1950s Pleasantville. Lest I appear too cynical I admit to writing Christmas circulars, and this year will have plenty of good news after two wonderful weddings. But that follows Annus Horribilis Christmas circulars in 202 and 2006.

My solution however, at least for Christians, isn’t just to ‘put the Christ back into Christmas’ or make everyday like Christmas Day. It’s to put Christmas back to Christmas. We need to restore Advent. Stop rushing through to Christmas. The early Church sanctified the ancient Roman calendar and its pagan sense of time with a calendar and rhythmic time-line structured according to the story of salvation. It started with Advent, the month or so beginning on the 4th Sunday before Christmas Day. Christians fasted and prayed and waited patiently, longingly for the coming of the Messiah, not just the first coming but also the second – you know the one that only American fundies seem to believe in these days. The one about joining with the great hope of generations of God’s people to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the messianic hope, of one who’ll bring a new heavens and new earth where justice and peace resides (2 Peter 3). This heightened sense of anticipation would give way to overwhelming joy and celebration at the incarnation of this hope, taking the place of the Roman sun god at the centre of creation, the calendar and our sense of time.

But fast-food, consumer Christianity with its secularised sense of time is so eager to get to Christmas that we bypass Advent. We’re like kids when we take off for holidays asking ‘are we there yet?’ after an hour of their 10 hour trip, unable to enjoy the journey because of premature arrival. And we desperately try to distract them from the journey and the country with dvds and videos.

Rather than enjoying the view from the panoramic perspective of Advent we’re rushing to get our work finished so we can take a break. Because we know how the story ends we rush through the long, lavish and miraculous, material detail about how God patiently prepared a people – how God sent his Son when the time had fully come (Gal 4:4). Pardon the sexual language but we want the climax without the foreplay that heightens expectation and hope. Rather than savouring the plaintive mood of ‘O come o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear…’ we want to jump into Joy to the World or Silent Night at the beginning of December.

More generally we give in to our desire for instant gratification driven to distraction by kids who are targeted to pester their parents by corporate paedophiles. We fail to make space for the magnitude of the messianic hope. And we fail to feel the fullness of the joy of the Incarnation because we can’t really sing Joy to the World unless we’ve really rehearsed ‘O come, O come Immanuel’ (See S. Grenz, ‘Drive-Through Christmas’, Christianity Today, 6/12/1999). We’ve had our sense of time secularised and shortened to eliminate an Advent – urous perspective. And I don’t mean the amorous adventures of The Slap.

Julie Szego’s article a few years back captures the loss of a sense of vocational adventure and the search for a new one that many younger high-achievers feel. Her, ‘A Journey without Corporate Baggage: How Generation X is rebelling against the modern work ethic’, depicts the Quarter-life Crisis precisely. She describes having left her job in a prestigious Melbourne law firm to backpack Europe.  

I found youth hostels packed with 25 to 35-year-olds – all, like me, defectors from respectable jobs: lawyers, public servants, environmental scientists. My international comrades in arms. We didn’t know where we were going, but we knew what we were escaping from ... Since my return I’ve found that all my peers are running off to careers as counsellors or New Age quacks with crystal balls. There’s soul searching and aptitude testing. We’re convinced that somewhere between the school yard and the office building with the talking lift, we’ve missed the correct turn-off ... Everyone I know seems to be going part-time, casual and short-term, so they can write the TV script, do the photography course, finish their masters.

Why are we gambling with the weekly pay cheque? Why are we opting for the insecurity that puts mortgages and shopping malls beyond our reach? … It’s a personal rebellion against the corporate ethic of 44-hour days and box-ticking performance appraisals; against the subtle, soul-destroying conditioning of the paranoid, air-conditioned workplace. We’ve read the writing on the wall …There’s no such thing as a job for life. So why not put life first and let jobs and careers come and go?

But what’s the answer to this sense of alienation? I think former High Court Judge Michael Kirby is right to say: ‘In my view there is a deeper malaise … today… I refer to the void which is left in many lives by the absence of any spiritual construct and by the increasingly general rejection of any spiritual dimension to life. I mean a life … which involves no reflection on the amazing fact of existence and its brevity and about justice and its demands …’ We need some sense of eternity impinging on the everyday, putting, in my words, ‘the awe back into the ordinary’.

There are positive examples of such awe-inspiring Advent-urous living in the midst of staid institutions. I heard from a lawyer once how he sees helping two companies reach an out of court settlement as part of God’s redemptive or Kingdom purpose to ‘heal creation’. Or of how pastoral situations often get referred to him, and how he prayed publicly when he found out a colleague’s wife had a life-threatening illness. And his prayer was answered.

Nor is the answer necessarily the kind of alternative and New Age option Julie Szego describes, especially if you’ve got a mortgage to pay. We need to be responsible, especially if we’ve got dependent relationships relying upon us, we need to be good stewards, not only of our money, but of the carrying capacity of creation. Like Paul says in 1 Cor 7:29-31 it’s being bi-focal, focusing on the job at hand but simultaneously in the light of the larger hope and sense of Advent time, ‘doing business, getting married, but as if not doing business and getting married’, for the power structures and status schemes of this world are passing away.

Our prayer under pressure may be like Oliver Cromwell’s ‘praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’, taking the ammo analogically. Or in the midst of an adversarial, competitive culture, ‘Lord if this day I forget you, I pray do not forget me’. But our forgetting isn’t just an individual thing, to inflict guilt on ourselves over; it’s a cultural thing and the antidote is for small groups of Christians, families, friends etc, who can see our  blindspots, to form an alternative Advent-urous culture, to hold us mutually accountable to an Advent sense of time, to live bi-focally, Kingdomly, Advent-urously.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and minister at Spotswood Anglican. He is also editor of Zadok Perspectives (www.zadok.org.au) and author of the forthcoming Moth and Rust Consume: Christ, Wealth and Continuing Financial Crises (www.acornpress.net.au)


Doug Hynd
December 7, 2011, 8:48PM
Stopping to engage with Advent is important for a number of reasons that you identify with a good deal of honesty.

The other issue that we need to pay attention to is that Advent helps us locate the mystery of the incarnation is its broadest context and us in that context.

James Lewis
December 8, 2011, 11:48AM
Thankyou Gordon,
your article has made me stop this morning and re-affirm the value taking time seriously. I want to honour the month before Christmas Day as a time of longing for genuine encounter with our Messiah. I want to resist the fast-food approach to my faith, before I have credibility to teach it to others.
Shirley Timmins
December 22, 2011, 3:28PM
What a relief to read such a refreshingly renewing burst of spiritual common sense ! Helping me finish off this Advent's serious contemplation with a joyful shout of praise.....thanks.
Doug Hynd
December 22, 2011, 6:18PM
The real challenge to our celebration of Christmas is, as you say, Gordon, the pressure of consumerism and rushing into Christmas. Our family try and use the lighting of Advent candles over the four weeks in the approach to Christmas as a way of trying to locate ourselves in the time of Advent.

Perhaps we need to go further and more self-consciously slow down. I note that the theme for the Ekklesia Project next year is "Slow Church - Abiding Together in the Patient Work of God". There is something important in that

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