Advent for the Introvert

Adam McHugh, author of the fine book, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, has written for Patheos a reflection on Advent that deserves reading by the introverts and the extroverts, who will see Advent from a different angle.

How do you introverts experience the Christmas season? How can we be more pastorally sensitive to introverts during Advent?

For some people, the Advent season on the church calendar is one of the most anticipated times of the year. For some, there is no other time in which their love of God is stronger, there is no other time in which they are more aware of God’s mercy in their lives and in the world, there is no other time in which their hearts go out to others with such affection, and there is no other time in which their joy is more profound.

I am not one of those people.

For me this time of year has always been a spiritually dry time. There is a line in a Counting Crows song that says “You can see a million miles tonight, but you can’t get very far.” That is my experience during this season. Every year I anticipate it with everyone else, hoping that this year will be different. Maybe this year the earth-shattering experience of God will take place, and I’ll be able to take in the seismic joy that should result from the knowledge that God entered the course of human history to reclaim it as his own. But by December 26th, I’m left with disappointment, another year of not getting very far.

I experience a deep division within myself during Advent. My inner world stirs with longings for deep experiences of grace, for moments of pregnant silence, for times of candlelit reflections on the fullness of deity wrapped in a child. But my outer world is harassed by the rampant activity, the hurried crowds, and the consumeristic clutter of the season.

I think my personal division reflects a broader cultural division. I’m willing to suspend my cultural cynicism for a moment and speculate that at the root of American consumer Christmas is a deep-seated desire for meaning. I may be way off on this, but I suspect the decorations, the music, the saturated social calendars, the capitalistic flurry, and the caloric overload are attempts at finding something true, something significant. Hopes for discovering community and transcendence. There is a neighborhood near my own that puts on an unbelievable show of lights, music, and decorations for the weeks leading up to Christmas. Cars line up for blocks to meander through the illuminated streets and residents sit in their driveways around firepits and chat with the passersby. Aside from laying a carbon footprint likely visible from outer space, it is a powerful display of community spirit.

The problem, I think, is that our culture doesn’t know how to truly celebrate. Overconsumption and overstimulation are the only ways we know how to mark a special occasion. Even though most of us implicitly know it doesn’t work and that we’re going to wake up with a hangover, it’s all we know how to do. When there is a significant event, we commemorate it by scurrying around, spending absurd amounts of money, gathering a crowd, and turning up the volume. If we’re not weighed down by anxiety and insomnia, then it must not be a very important occasion. Our holiday “celebrations” therefore seem destined to only get bigger and bigger, because we have built up such a tolerance.

Many of us in the church live in the tension of this religious and cultural ambivalence. Our Christmas Eves are often a confusing recipe of ingredients like these: the onslaught of relatives, massive food preparation, stressful and boisterous dinners, hurrying everyone into the car, attending a hot, packed Christmas Eve worship service in which we light candles, and sing lyrics like:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Then we rush home, hustle the kids into bed so we can finish wrapping gifts and stuffing stockings, because they’ll be up in five hours. Sleep in heavenly peace indeed.

I was originally asked to write about this topic because I have written a book about Christian introverts, those in the church who prefer a quieter, slower, more contemplative lifestyle and who, for those reasons, often find themselves on the fringes both of the culture and of Christian community. I saw a blog post recently that called January 2nd “Happy Introverts Day” because of the notorious nature of the holiday season for those of us who find social interaction tiring and sometimes stressful. But the truth is that the need for a quieter, less cluttered, more reflective Advent season is not restricted to introverts. The clatter of the holidays has caused people of all temperaments to turn from the inner places of our souls, contributing to the superficiality of our spiritual practice during this season. We need to find a new way to celebrate.

In the early centuries of the Church, celebrating Christmas was a counter-cultural activity. It’s unclear whether the church fathers chose December 25th to co-opt the already entrenched pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun, or whether the pagan holiday was established to rival the Church’s celebration of the birth of Christ. What is clear is that Christmas was a subversive event, providing an alternative to the mainstream culture’s celebration.

In our world, quiet is counter-cultural. I’m not only referring to quiet on the outside, but also quiet on the inside. In fact, it may be easier to shut out the external voices than it is to silence the internal noise. It’s often those inner voices, especially the unacknowledged ones, that compel us to fill our lives with movement and agendas and spending and eating. Our behaviors and hurry are echoes of our inner doubts about our worth. Sadly, in many ways the nature of our holiday celebrations reveal how incompletely we have embraced the actual message of Christmas.

In contrast to the dizzying nature of our cultural celebrations, the biblical narratives about Jesus’ birth speak in hushed tones about simple, unsophisticated scenes. The baby of prophecy, the King of kings, is born in a quiet town in an inconsequential region to unremarkable people and placed in a trough in a barn. Yet by the grace of God this spot becomes the center of the universe, the matrix of hope and redemption and salvation. The quiet, ordinary place becomes the beginning of the dramatic climax of the great Story. The birth of Jesus incarnates the promise that we are not alone and that we are loved beyond measure, recipients of a love that brings peace and stillness to our souls.

The birth of a child is both a time of poignant gratitude and a time of quiet anticipation. I remember how friends of mine described the day they brought their first child home from the hospital. They placed him in his crib, in the room they had been preparing for months, and watched him sleep. For hours they sat in contented silence. My friend said, “It was unlike any other moment in my life. It was the greatest moment of love we’d ever experienced, more intimate than even our wedding night. There was nothing else in the world we needed that day — we had everything.” Yet he also said that as he looked into his son’s eyes, he was full of anticipation. Who will my son be? What will he do in his life? Who will he marry? What will be his gifts, his calling? Like Mary the mother of Jesus, my friends stored up these things in their hearts and silently wondered who their child would become.

Advent is not only a season of reflection on events past. It is a season of quiet hope, as we await the second advent of our Lord Jesus, who will come and complete his reclamation project. Our celebration during this time of year is necessarily incomplete. In this season we must prepare small, quiet places in our individual souls and in our communities, still longing and waiting for the fulfillment of Jesus’ work and the rebirth of creation.

I’m still struggling with Advent, still reaching for something that I haven’t found yet. I do know that if there is any chance for deep experiences of God’s grace and love in this season, we need to open spaces for hope and attentiveness in our hearts. We can’t compel God to move, but we can clear away what distracts us from hearing his gentle voice. We can reduce the external clutter of the season by simplifying our celebration. We can slowly savor the biblical prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and the narratives about Jesus’ birth. We can devote time to silence and solitude as well as to corporate celebration. We can learn to say “no” when we find ourselves spinning from all the invitations and seasonal stimuli. We can listen to the voices of people who are not often heard over the cultural shouting — the poor, the hungry, the suffering around the world. We can prepare a quiet place for God to renew his love and rebirth his hope in us.

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  • A beautiful piece. Thanks for writing it.

    I too struggle to find a happy medium between the ‘noise’ of Christmas and the ‘silent night’ we so often sing about during this time of year; to intentionally take the time to stop and reflect about the wonder of the incarnation, the turmoil in between, and the anticipation of Christ’s return.

    And so, we wait…

    Blessings.

  • Amen! As a Christian introvert (or introverted Christian), I appreciate this. I sometimes feel alone in not “getting into” the intense celebrations of the season. I’m happy to know that there are others who feel as I do and can articulate those feelings better than I can!

    thank you!

  • Love this. I’m reading a book right now about simple living and processing how to do life in ways that are so different from our environment. It is not easy going against so many streams.

    I have, however, been happy to move out of the rat-race in some spaces … and have seen how the slower way of contemplation is so very rich.

    Every extrovert needs to feed their inner introvert :^)

  • Thanks again for raising up the experience of introverts in the church and giving it validity

  • Scot McKnight

    Often enough we equate celebration with happy-making and, instead of finding deeper wells of utter joy and contentment, equate celebration with noise.

    Which is my way of saying Adam is keeping us all honest and we owe him a quiet hand of acclamation for drawing our attention to the fuller spectrum of Christmas.

  • Linda

    Much of what you worte rang true for me. I have been wondering about some of the same things lately. I don’t have “my house” decorated yet and feel odd that I am not looking forward to the day I need to get it done and don’t have the money to spend a lot. It keeps me from getting sucked into the turmoil of it all. Galatians 4:4-6 for many years has been a favorite Christmas passage. I am continually amazed that the birth of the Christ and his ultimate payment on the cross freed me from sin so I can spend eternity with Him.

  • AHH

    From this introvert’s perspective …
    Yes on the difficulty of the excessive hustle and bustle, and on the extra social interaction.
    And then there is the feeling of inadequacy when you can’t be expressively joyous like what seems to be expected of people (especially Christians) in the season.
    I also find trying to come up with presents to give people, and also receiving presents, to be painful. Not sure if that part is an introvert thing or just me …

  • Daniel

    What an interesting post. I really find the commercialism of our culture at this time of the year distressing. I can’t remember the last time I was in a mall during the Christmas season.

    I tend not to go to the Christmas program at church because it is so crowded and space seems to be at a premium. I like the music (even if the theology of the songs are not up to snuff) but the intensity of “everything Christmas” wears me out – even in church. Maybe not having children makes it easier to opt out of Christmas. Living in near-poverty helps.

    Can you be an “introvert”, like the article describes, and how do you deal with it when you also have children?

  • tscott

    The honesty here is refreshing. It’s hard to draw close and spend time when the pressures of life pull us in so many other directions. And this is a busy time. But then many here have that year round.

    May I add another twist using our liturgy. Our church year is a model of our life from justification to our sanctification. From incarnation to glorification. This time of year is more about anticipation(children get that). For those who desire intimacy, this beginning of our season can be disappointing. I’m going to say what I think- Christmas really is as I was in the beginning- sort of an intuituve-projective faith. That is a fantasy filled, imitative phase.

    I’m not disappointed by December 26, because more than any other time I do get to be with all my children, and grandchildren. And I spend this time of year learning where they are at, and positively stirring their imagination as much as I am able.

  • wow. nicely done.

  • Susan N.

    @Daniel – #8 … “Can you be an ‘introvert’, like the article describes, and how do you deal with it when you also have children?”

    That’s my dilemma of late. The “problem” is exacerbated by oldest child now in full teenage mode. She, too, is a quiet child, but the social aspect of those years is hugely important. She doesn’t yet drive, so I am running and mingling much more than my introverted nature is built to handle (well, anyway). It’s fairly draining. For me, I have to try extra hard to balance the busyness and socially draining activity with quiet, alone time, doing something that recharges me — reading, listening to music, etc.

    I rebel against all the “musts” of the Christmas season. We still do a fair amount of stuff, as a family, but not nearly as much as most folks, simply because I’m the engine that makes our routine go, and I can only do so much before I burn out. I guess my family knows me and mostly accepts that. Church and friends are a mixed bag. There’s always a push, it feels like, to do more. I don’t feel comfortable always being in the position of drawing personal boundary lines and pushing back. That itself is exhausting. I try each year to make plenty of time to keep my eyes on Christ and the beautiful meaning of Christmas.

  • DRT

    All five of us in our family (2 parents and 3 teen kids) are introverts and we basically don’t participate in the holidays. We will not go anywhere, will not go to a single party, and will not invite anyone to our house until new years eve when there is one other couple that comes to our house and we eat sandwiches and break up before 11.

    Nice and boring and contemplative.

  • Daniel

    Susan @11, thanks for the response. It sounds a little like a balancing act. An interesting picture of yourself as “the engine that makes our routine go.” I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms before. I know some in our church who are “high performance engines” and they seem frustrated that others can’t/won’t keep up.

  • Sarah C

    Thank you for sharing. I am a slight introvert, so find solace in the post. As the wife of an extreme introvert, I find it encouraging to see the introverted Christian experience validated. We have often received the message from Church (implicitly or explicitly) that his introversion is “sinful” and he needs to “grow” and overcome it. Thank you for this counterpoint and encouragement.

  • Amanda

    I must be a strange introvert, especially since I’m extremely introverted … yet the holidays are one of the few times that I put myself in the position to socialize. And since it only happens a few times a year, it doesn’t overload my energy reserves.

    I’m also one of those people who knows her limitations. If I don’t think that I can manage this or that social event. I won’t go. I think I go to one or two parties (where there are people I know), one play, the late night church service (where I sit in the not-as-full choir loft rather than in the crowded pews), and then family time. I don’t feel compelled to be social butterfly at any of these events, because no one expects it of me. I’m too much of an extreme introvert to hide it, and I’m pretty sure my body language just screams it.

    It is definitely easier because I don’t have a spouse or children and I still live with my parents (cannot yet afford to leave). This leaves me a lot of freedom to say no, and when I do something, it’s in my comfort zone, my sanctuary.

  • linda

    insightful and true. The Christmas season ( I don’t refer to it as advent as most of the people that I talk to do not even know the word)pains my soul. The greeting of the season is “have you gotten your shopping done yet?” or ” are you ready for Christmas?” The Christmas decorations up at the same time as Halloween seems schizophrenic. Everyone complains aboutoverdoing the gifts, but people do not want to agree to not exchange gifts. I learned long ago that simple is better and,for me, celebrating the everyday is where the joy is.

  • Aaron

    Oh my. Us poor introverts. God made me this way and I’m diggin’ it; always have, always will. No apologies and no regrets. I’ll leave you to enjoy Christmas as you wish just don’t meddle with mine.

    I like Adam’s ideas. You know what dries out my experience of a deep and meaningful Advent and Christmas? The frantic, meaningless activity, the sentimentality. And if I let myself get sucked into it I will miss the stillness as we await His arrival and anticipate His next one; which by the way, won’t be so still.

    Many of you already have formed certain judgments of me and I’ll tell you, don’t be so hasty. I love and like the people with whom I will spend Christmas. I just need the space to enjoy it more with Jesus. I hope there is nothing wrong with that?

    Merry Christmas.

  • Terry

    This was a great peace (pun intended.) For me it is a blessing (and a curse) to have both introverted and extroverted tendencies in a somewhat “quiet-tensioned” balance — I see, feel and live both sides. It seems the Gospel record reveals a Savior who lived both sides.

    We extroverts must find the contemplative stillness for the feeding of our souls; we introverts must find the community of Christ for the feeding of our souls.

    May God bless us with His best, in both, for all.