By Erin Guzmán
For many years I’ve been a firm believer that the sooner the Christmas decorations go up, the less special the Christmas holiday feels and becomes for me. Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas and all the “seasonally appropriate” colors, flavors, smells and traditions. But I prefer to savor each ‘holiday season’ rather than rush through each one to make it to Christmas.
Since I was little, and before I knew anything of the birth of Jesus, I felt there was something about this particular holiday that made it unique. Christmas felt special enough that the earlier I saw hints of red/green, the less the build-up mattered.
The ‘overexposure,’ if you will, led me to feelings of sameness and indifference.
A day or so after the results of the U.S. presidential election, I decided to put up the Christmas tree. I had planned to keep it stashed in the attic until at least the second week in December. Knowing my feelings about ‘starting Christmas’ too early, I can’t tell you why I decided to do this. Especially after a divisive election season, putting up a Christmas tree was probably the furthest thing from a lot of people’s minds.
But this was my response.
That night I spent hours gingerly unwrapping the bright and fragile decorations before finding the right spot to place them on the tree. When I finished this process, I felt a strange sense of peace. It was a kind of peace that I’ve only ever experienced in very few acts of worship, many of which have never been inside the walls of a church in the traditional sense. There was something deeply healing and grounding in this familiar act of putting up a Christmas tree, but at the same time, something was profoundly different. I found a new energy and purpose that I think is relevant for approaching Advent in our current context.
Advent is about ‘preparing the way’ for God incarnate, who physically entered the world to be with us. With us in our struggles, in our hopes, in our fears and in our efforts toward being and realizing the Kin(g)dom.
And while that is a hopeful and encouraging message, we often have a pretty romantic way of engaging this story — a way I would argue can be self-serving with the potential of leading us into sameness and indifference rather than into a prophetic, justice-making kind of faith.
Because we ‘know the story’ so well (or at least we know particular versions of the story well), my experience has been that we, people of faith, fail to engage with it in ways that allow us to be transformed.
We tend to opt for pleasant retellings with a smiling, cooing baby Jesus that bring us comfort in the familiarity, rather than engage with the hard truths and rough edges that poke out of the text.
These accounts aren’t in and of themselves bad or wrong, but when we remove God from the social and political contexts into which God was born, we remove ourselves from those contexts as well. These versions of the narrative don’t quite push us; rather, they lock us into sameness and indifference about it.
This God we prepare for in the Advent season was born into the world in poor conditions and forced to flee as a refugee with his family to escape infanticide and political strife.
Because God appeared to us in this way, we are called to shift our understandings of this story, how the story is told, how it impacts our faith and our various contexts, and where we are seeing and responding to similar realities of oppressed people in our midst.
There’s a reason Advent lasts for several weeks leading up to Christmas. We need this time to center, reflect, and prepare for how we will receive the story of God’s entrance into the world. Because it’s a messy one, filled with both conflict and grace, despair and hope.
It is a disruption of our tendencies to default toward sameness and indifference.
This is what Advent means for me: A move toward a particular transformation.
As I think about my Christmas tree and the presidential election results, I think now about how all of these things impact my understanding of Advent and preparation for what is coming. While putting up a Christmas tree might not seem like a grand or logical gesture toward this liturgical season, the act of taking something familiar and doing it differently (especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty) have given me pause for a ‘recalibration’ of sorts.
The intentional act of centering, reflecting and connecting back to myself when our collective next steps seem uncertain and difficult has been energizing and life-giving. And I think that’s in many ways what Advent is supposed to mean, too. We prepare the way so that we can receive an energizing and life-giving story, one that shakes us from complacency and moves us toward a more just world.
May we find the moments and opportunities to take the familiar and make it a little different, breaking from sameness and indifference, so that we may be ready to welcome the God who loves us and walks with us.
—Erin Guzmán is received her Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School and now works at the Scarritt Bennett Center creating programing focused on racial justice and women’s spiritual and leadership development.