Advent and Celebration

by Brian Colmery
One of the remarkable things about the Old Testament laws is that they command celebration. Taking time off from work for full-throated celebration was non-negotiable for the people of God. Let something get in the way of your celebration and you are guilty of grievous sin. For those who think Christianity is a dour religion, full of duty and no delight, they really should read Leviticus.
We’ve lost some of that perspective over the last few thousand years. The Old Testament Israelites marked time differently. There was a time for work and a time for sabbath; some years were for planting and some for leaving the ground alone to celebrate the faithfulness of God. Today, we’ve flattened the whole thing out. We have no rhythm, no melody and harmony for our marking of time. We have just one note we try to play over and over again: either we want all of life to be a party or we want all of life to be productive.
So now, Christmas (among other holidays) is either a chance to relax the way we wish we could all year round, or a time we have to take off that keeps us from getting important things done. Of course, it’s usually more subtle than that. You’ll see which side you fall on quickly enough. Is Christmas ruined when the flurry of the holidays gets in the way of your time off? Or is Christmas ruined when the flurry of the holiday events gets in the way of that project you finally had time to work on?
Either way, when you lose the rhythm of marking time you lose the ability to truly celebrate (or to truly work, though we can’t explore that here). When you try to party all the time, you are never really partying.
Enter Advent, a season of waiting and longing for the joy that is to come. Advent is a way of bringing the rhythm back to a calendar dominated by the beginning of the school year, winter breaks, black fridays and new year’s eves. By focusing in on what wasn’t there to celebrate, we create space for a true and deep celebration on what was in a manger on Christmas Day.
This means Advent readings are more than a different scripture and song for the day. They aren’t there to be read, appreciated, and set aside. Instead, they are there to be inhabited. What was it like to need a Savior, and have only the promise of God to rely on? What was it like to look at your own heart and the world around you and come up with no final hope save what God promised to do one day? Our own experience of salvation dovetails with the stories we read. We find we have more in common with those who waited for God’s messiah than we thought.
The Christmas decorations serve a different purpose, as we’ve addressed before. They don’t tell us that the Christmas season is here, they tell us that Christmas Day is coming. They become a part of our waiting, our longing to celebrate what has already come to pass. Many people are curious about why we should "wait for Jesus" if He’s already come, and thousands of years ago at that. The answer is that all real celebration requires that kind of inhabited memory. Anniversaries are celebrations when you remember what it would be like without your spouse; birthdays are celebrations when you remember what it would be like without your friend who was born that day. Otherwise they are just one more year in the midst of a lot of years, a good excuse to have a party.
And this means Christmas Eve, when we light the final advent candle, is full to the brim with anticipation, expectation, and a kind of deep giddiness that refuses to be covered over with age. Could it be true that the next morning Jesus would be born, and the waiting would be over, and we would feast with a final hope in real view? St. Nick, as genuinely holy as he was in history, is quickly eclipsed by the one he worshiped. The Night Before Christmas everyone is stirring, because Jesus is coming. And the day of Christmas, everyone is rejoicing. Gifts are exchanged because the Gift has come. The lights are brighter, the tree is greener, because “nothing is impossible with God,” (Luke 1:37) and we’ve tasted it.
Good things take time, and good celebrations are no exception. Use these last days of Advent to invest in the celebration to come.