After dealing with weeks of Christmas [stuff] at the Big Box, it’s kind of a relief to begin Advent for real. I’ve been re-stocking and selling lights for a month at the store, but today I finally got our own put up. The lights look lovely, even against the leaves that I haven’t had time to rake yet.
Advent is a church-y idea, part of a liturgical calendar that follows a much different schedule from the commercial Christmas Season. That Christmas Season “officially” starts the day after Thanksgiving (or maybe Thanksgiving Day, when Santa Claus arrives at Macy’s). But these days it seems to start even earlier than that — usually the day after Halloween, giving us all two solid months of Christmas music, Christmas decorations, Christmas events, parties, and music.
I like all of those things, which is why I’m not a stickler for enforcing the Advent/Christmas distinction outside of church. I don’t want to be singing “Silent Night” in church before Christmas Eve, but I don’t mind if the grocery store plays the Stevie Nicks version of it before Pearl Harbor Day. And I don’t want cable TV stations and streaming services strictly following liturgical rules about Advent. It’s December, so bring on “Elf” and “Die Hard” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a few dozen variations of that Hallmark movie with the actress from that show playing the big-city executive returning to the small town where she meets the scruffy widower.
One problem with this time of year in church is that it’s all well and good to say, “This is the time for Advent hymns, not for Christmas carols,” but that only works if we have enough good Advent hymns to back it up. (Yes, great, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” but what else?) We’ve got a shortage of good Advent songs and an overabundance — way more than 12 days’ worth — of really good and beloved Christmas songs, so it’s not surprising we want to start on those earlier than the church calendar says we should.
In the secular realm of commercial Christmas Season, the first “Christmas song” I heard in a store this year — at the Wawa, 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day — was the Pointer Sisters’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” It’s their version of the E Street Band’s version, which is Bruce’s version of the Jackson Five’s joyous, boisterous re-arrangement of the song.
Santa songs aren’t Christmas carols, of course. They’re secular, commercial Christmas Season songs. But this one captures something of Advent better than many of the songs you’ll find in a hymnal. “You better watch out” because something big is coming that will sort the good and bad — that gets at the core of the Magnificat. It’s a song about anticipation, warning, and hope. That’s pretty darned Advent-y, if you think about it.
Unrelated to the commercial or liturgical calendar, the tail end of the year is also when I finally get to see the previous year’s Oscar-nominated movies as they at last arrive on TV and Netflix. That’s how I wound up recently getting to see “The Arrival.” It’s hard to say anything about that story without spoilers, since it plays with the arrow of time in a way that makes it difficult to discuss without revealing the surprise twist in the middle/end/beginning. But let me try.Amy Adams plays a linguistics professor who is called on to try to communicate with the space aliens whose giant ships have abruptly arrived across our planet. This isn’t an explodey sho0t-’em-up like “Independence Day.” It’s pretty science-y science fiction, brimming with thought-provoking ideas about the nature of language and time and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Watching Adams and these inscrutable, multi-tentacled visitors taking turns playing Anne Sullivan to one another makes for a surprisingly gripping story.
From another angle, though, “The Arrival” might also be the most Advent movie I’ve ever seen. It’s about timelessness making contact with time, about annunciation, about the incarnate possibility of human-celestial understanding, about a child born to die. There’s even a heavenly host singing of peace on earth, good will to all. Maybe I’m projecting onto it, but it’s definitely worth your time to check it out and see for yourself.
Meanwhile, yesterday on Twitter the first day of Advent included the 10,000th rehash of a well-rehearsed script. Once again a right-wing Randian/Hobbesian ideologue — this time it was Eric son of Erick — attempted to defend that ideology by rebranding it as Christianity, asserting a stark and arbitrary either/or between “individual responsibility to help the poor” and, well, everything else (structural, institutional, collective, communal, civil society, love, Gospel, etc.). The ecumenical response involved him getting schooled by — among others — an evangelical, a rabbi, and a Jesuit priest.
It seems to me that there’s something “Arrival”-ish about that perennial disagreement — or about the way it never even manages to attain the status of disagreement. I think there’s a Whorfian element to it, with the Randian cultists unable to grasp any language that would allow them to articulate any thought other than their own stunted vision of life as cut-throat competition. As much fun as it is to watch the priests and rabbis douse Erickson’s head, signing water over and over again, it’s also frustrating to see him stubbornly refuse every such opportunity to have a “Miracle Worker” style epiphany — to reject any language that might allow him a better way of understanding the world.
That frustrating conversation is also Advent-appropriate in another way — in the way that Mary sang about, and kind of in the way that MJ and Bruce and Bing and the Pointer Sisters all sing too. Because as long as those zero-sum individualists choose to keep crying and pouyting, refusing to accept a bigger language and a better way of understanding, there’s really only one message we can give them: “You better watch out.”