Confession: Every time I come across advice from a fellow Christian urging us to slow down during Advent, I am tempted to do an exaggerated, teenager-ly eye roll. Sometimes I actually do the eye roll. And throw in a heavy sigh for dramatic effect. To me, admonitions to shun holiday season busy-ness in favor of quiet and stillness, while well-intentioned, communicate a willful ignorance of just how much preparatory work even a relatively simple Christmas requires. I assume that most Christians today, unlike the Puritans, think that the birth of our savior merits a celebration. I assume that most Christians enjoy a special Christmas meal, treats made from cherished family recipes, gazing at a twinkling tree in a firelit room, a few thoughtful gifts under that tree, a few more gifts purchased for those who can’t fund their own Christmas, maybe a pageant populated by adorable angels and sheep. I wonder how all that celebrating is supposed to happen if we’re also supposed to spend Advent pruning our to-do lists and slowing down.
My friend and editor Jana Riess describes a similar phenomenon when writing about her attempts to keep a traditional Jewish Sabbath in her excellent book Flunking Sainthood. Jana writes:
As I live through the month of Sabbaths, I have a bone to pick with Rabbi Heschel. I find his book The Sabbath beautiful, but…nowhere does Rabbi Heschel write about practical things. Like, say, eating. Food is a huge part of a lovely Shabbos celebration, but the book takes it for granted that such feasts are effortlessly prepared by unseen kosher elves…So either: 1) Cooking is not work…,or 2) Someone else is shopping, planning, chopping, stirring, baking, and cleaning up afterward. Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but I’d be willing to wager that this someone’s name is Mrs. Heschel.
I am unapologetically busy during Advent—busy, but rarely frantic or pressured. My hands are busy, but my heart abides happily in the expectant hush of Advent. That’s because nearly every Christmas preparation I undertake points toward (in Charlie Brown’s words) “what Christmas is all about.”
I string lights on our shrubs because, when I come home after a tedious afternoon of carpooling weary kids, I get a little zing of joy upon seeing my same old street transformed into a cheerfully lit wonderland. I’m reminded that God is not only our light in the darkness, but also has a way of transforming what is ordinary (a baby, a cattle stall, a weary heart) into something unexpected, delightful, extraordinary. I bake dozens of Christmas cookies to offer to my family and give as gifts, because preparing and sharing food are fundamental acts of community and care. I cheerfully shop for gifts for a limited number of people (children, husband, a few close friends) because I see lavish, thoughtful gift giving as a reflection of God’s most lavish gift to us—himself. My careful (and OK, slightly compulsive) planning of who gets what arises from the idea that loving people well requires knowing them well—what they love, what they hate, what they need, what inspires them, what bores them silly. The link between love and knowledge is a theological notion: God’s love is intertwined with God’s intimate knowledge of who we are, the good and the bad, because God created us and chose to became one of us. So I don’t troll the aisles of Toys ‘R Us impulsively throwing toys into my cart, or wander the “gift” displays at chain stores hoping to be inspired. I choose gifts deliberately based on what I know of the recipients.
Sometimes the work of making room for God is internal and still—silence, prayer, study. And sometimes it is outward and active—preparing the sanctuary for worship, preparing the home for Sabbath, and preparing for Christmas. One of my favorite lines in the Book of Common Prayer is in the prayer after communion: “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” When I decorate the tree with Christmas carols blasting on my iPod, pack a box of homemade cookies for a child’s teacher, and go from store to store searching for a particular gift that my child didn’t ask for but that I know she will love, I do so with gladness and singleness of heart. I know why I’m doing it, and I choose to do it out of love, not obligation. These practical preparations are just as vital to my Advent observance as early-morning prayers and the lighting of Advent candles.
There are no Christmas elves to perform the many tasks that precede a joyfully observed Christmas. There is only us—our busy hands, our expectant hearts, both preparing to welcome the long-awaited, incarnate love of God, both necessary for knowing that love more deeply and sharing it more widely.
This post originally appeared on Adam McHugh’s Introverted Church blog last December. And FYI for regular readers, I will likely post more sporadically this week and next as, in addition to Christmas prep, we have a child’s birthday (a newly minted teenager!) to celebrate this week.