by Julia Seymour—
Christmas—the stretch of holy days, not the holiday—is the shortest church season we have. The twelve days of Christmas make for a season shorter than even the briefest time after Epiphany, no matter how early Lent begins. Lent itself is 40 days. The Easter season is 50 days. The long green season of Pentecost, or Ordinary Time, goes on for more than 20 weeks. Advent, of course, is four weeks. Christmas, compared to other church seasons, is fleeting
Yet our Christmas season and the advertising season of the rest of the world are out of step with each other. Long before we mark the birth of the Savior, many of us tire of seeing Christmas things all around us. We’re exhausted—long before we celebrate our true expectation of God’s completion of divine good work in Christ’s return.
THE TRUTH OF ADVENT
Even though we know Christmas is “not yet,” we sometimes struggle with how to observe Advent. There is always a push for Christmas carols, plays and decorations, even though Advent has its own music and its own meaning. When we rush to Christmas in the church, we don’t make the season longer. Instead, we miss out on acknowledging the Advent ache that Christmas is meant to heal.
Commercial Christmas presses upon us, but the truth of Advent is inescapable. In the grocery store, as I hear “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” my mind fills with the number of people I know who struggle with grief and mental health during this season.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” plays in a department store, and I hear the voices of people who call the church office each week asking for food assistance, gifts for children or apartment rental help.
As I wait to get an oil change for my car, I hear the wish list from the song “Santa Baby,” and I think of those who are wishing for one more moment with loved ones…an end to divisions in their families…healing and hope.
On my car radio, I hear “The Little Drummer Boy,” which reminds me of the drums of war…the drums of greed…the drums of fiscal concern beating all around. I think of the new refugees among us, especially those from Afghanistan. I wonder if they are adjusting to the sounds of their new homes or if the drumming sounds still haunt them.
Holiday music does not drown out the Advent ache, our painful realization of the gaps between the way the world is and the will of our loving God. The short Christmas season never seems long enough to overcome the less cheery realities that are currently part of this life.
The prophet Joel shares a message that is commonly associated with Lent, but also appears at Advent: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for [God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:12-13).
Joel writes to the Judeans who have returned to Jerusalem after the exile. These were people who ached. A few among them dimly remembered earlier days. Most of the returnees were young, born in exile. They longed for the Jerusalem of family stories and memories. The rubble they found upon their return did not match their expectations.
In the first days and weeks of trying to reclaim, resettle and restore, no one wants to say how disappointing it all is. How it’s not what they expected. How the triumphant return not only falls flat, but flat-out stinks. They’d gotten ready for an exciting celebration, only to find there was much work to be done. We might say, in our time, that there is still more waiting, more Advent, to come.
This, too, was a waiting time, an Advent for God. Many of the Judeans did not return thanking God. They didn’t speed over hills and through valleys, their hearts in their throats, anticipating being able to worship in what was left of the temple. Some chose to stay in Babylon, where they had adapted to life—including adapting to the religious practices of the new location. God was waiting too—waiting for people to heed the prophets’ call, to sing songs of praise to God, to stop taking God’s favor for granted and put it to use making the world a better place.
The Rev. Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church in Big Timber, Montana. She enjoys her flannel-and-denim-clad life with her husband, Rob, and their two children, Daniel and Victoria, plus a dog and a rabbit.
This article is excerpted from the November/December 2021 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather