The children and I noticed a day or two ago, as we drove somewhere or other in the fading twilight—so 4:30 because of all the daylight that’s being saved—that a neighbor had a Christmas tree prominently displayed in the elegant front window possessed by so many houses all around us. The lights twinkled and sparkled, flickering warmly against the encroaching darkness. And my children cried foul. “It’s not even Thanksgiving,” several of them shrieked. “You’re not allowed to skip Thanksgiving!”
My children, which will shock you not at all, are curmudgeonly about the seasons. If you decorate for halloween in the first sultry summery week of September, they will criticize you bitterly whenever they walk by your house. If you don’t put up anything for Easter, after having a two stories high inflatable Santa on your front lawn for eight weeks, they will whisper nasty things under their breath. No amount of my pleading for tolerant kind curiosity about the habits of other people has been able to make a dent. They rigidly apply the church year to every secular inclination and so every day, at my house, is Festivus—the airing of the grievances against all humanity. I know this is my fault, and believe me, I am sorry. Repentant even. I am doing what I can to repair the damage, but it’s not working.
And one reason, I think, that I am powerless before their seasonal judgmentalism, is that the rhythms of the church year are so powerful, because the feasts themselves are so rich, and the glittering contrast between the true celebration and the inflatable Santa is almost painful to behold.
While the world is frantically careening towards Santa, the church year is wending its way to a dramatic, nearly cataclysmic, close. It won’t limp out with a drunken simper, with the morbid regrets of a long year misspent, with regrets and misery, with the backward glance at grief and trouble that December 31st invites the sinner to consider.
You drink and party one more time, because you have another chance. You vow to do better tomorrow, after this last song. You kiss the stranger next to you, sure that something will get better in the morning, you will try your best and this time it will work. You stumble home in the dark, promising yourself that you’ll clean your house properly…later. And then the gray light of January dawns and you discover that there isn’t anything new. You are just the same as you were, only you have more stuff than you did last year, and you still need to lose the same amount of weight. You stare out your window at your giant inflatable Santa and then avert your eyes, scrolling through yelp for any decent gym review.Meanwhile the church has already accomplished her first fast, and her first true feast, and is gearing up for yet another one. The year didn’t end with a kazoo, but with the glorious proclamation that Christ is King over the whole cosmos, even the bits that don’t care a wit about him. There was loud signing. Fat, comfortable piles of new calendars with all the feasts marked out by color were available in the Narthex. Children careened back and forth and were told to calm down. And the sacristy cupboard disgorged its advent candles to the light and the duster.
The solemnity and reverence of judgment colliding with hope builds from the first Sunday of Advent all the way to the Incarnation. You worship the one who, though King, stoops to gather even you, bitter rebel that you are, into his kingdom. You struggle to behold him. And so it’s perfectly fine to feel angry, a little, at the world outside who is making no such effort. Who is partying without a reason, who is eating without rejoicing, and drinking without the painful pleasure of true expectation and joy.
Though not anger—compassion. For the one with the tree in the window even before the the ambrosial aroma of turkey has filled every corner of this town, that one wants light, is eager to cast away the darkness, is hungry for good things. That one doesn’t need the scolding Anglican infant to explain that Christmas comes not even just after Thanksgiving, but also Advent. No, that one needs someone to rejoice over the beauty that is there, to name the darkness for what it is, and to proclaim who is the true light of the world. But that can only begin with the pressing curiosity of the Christian to discover what kind of darkness is looming and threatening, and what kind of poverty is close at hand, and what is the hope that that lost one longs for.
Behind every giant inflatable Santa is a person. And God came to earth to rescue people. All the way down. Into the dust, or in our case the snow. Because it isn’t just the feast that is coming, it is God himself, and time is a wasting!