Have Yourself a Very Sacred Christmas
A clergy friend of mine asked me recently if I get much spiritually out of the season of Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas). In the Christian tradition, Advent, like Lent (the weeks leading up to Easter), is supposed to be a time of repentance, introspection, and spiritual preparation. But even the most faithful get sucked into the secular season of Christmas shopping, decorating, and travel. My friend shared that Advent feels much more busy than spiritual because even his church fills its calendar with holiday parties, gift giving, and performances. None of these things is necessarily bad, but they can sometimes distract from the penitential preparation of the Christian season (They can also sometimes enhance it of course).
The question of whether or not Advent is a spiritual season for me allowed me to verbalize one of the incredible gifts I have received in the last five years. When I began professional ministry half a decade ago, I remember being a little annoyed that the “Christmas break” I had most of my life as a student was a thing of the past. Now and for the rest of my life, any holiday travel would have to involve driving until midnight on Christmas Eve or taking early Christmas Day flights. And there would be no holiday cheer until every Christmas Eve candle was extinguished. Like department store Santa’s I was now in the business of making Christmas for everyone else, so my holiday merriment would have to wait until everyone else got their Christmas. I was annoyed because I was afraid my many religious duties would just compound the other pressures of the holiday—the shopping, the social events, the decorations.
But that week before my first Christmas, I remember walking around the dark wood sanctuary of my first church appointment, obsessively checking the stability of candles, sifting through little angel costumes, crowding poinsettias around the altar, all while subconsciously working on two or three sermons at once. I also remember cloudy light streaming through cold stained glass, the smell of greens surrounding the Advent wreath, and the peace of getting to spend an afternoon alone in God’s house working out my anxieties for the season. And truly for the first time in my life, Christmas felt sacred instead of just busy.
That year and every year after, I have had to work a lot during Advent and Christmas. I am forced to become consumed with the religious elements of the season, which is stressful in and of itself. But, as a result, the secular elements of the holiday have simply had to fall by the wayside. Things that seemed so important that the new year might not come without them have almost disappeared from my consciousness. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that we don’t put up Christmas decorations in our home. I attend very few holiday social events (largely because many of my friends are clergy, and we don’t have time for such things). And we buy about 4 gifts each year only for a few select family members for whom gift-exchanging is meaningful.
Instead, I busy myself with Advent studies, reflections, and sermons. I am consumed with pageant logistics, choosing the right hymns for the season, and talking with parishioners about the grief and anxieties that creep in during the holidays. Because of my work, I am forced to ask questions like: What does God’s incarnation have to do with police violence? Who is John the Baptist in light of hate crimes against LGBTQ people? What does Mary’s magnificat mean for victims of terrorism?
This religious busyness often comes with its own stresses and anxieties, but it has also been a gift to me. For me, Advent has become an incredibly meaningful and spiritually edifying season, not in spite of my profession but because of it. I know that, as my daughter gets older, my abstinence from more cultural parts of Christmas may have to wane, but I have really treasured these years of simply focusing on the sacred of the season.
Having had this experience, I will just encourage us, in these busy days, to be intentional about inserting some additional sacred reflection into our Christmas activities. Maybe find a small spiritual ritual, do a little bit of religious reading, add a prayer to your festivities, or try in some way to make the connection between seemingly secular, cultural Christmas rituals and your faith story.
If you can’t think of anything else to do, try this: Bookmark this page on your computer or phone, and take a moment a couple of times each day in the next week to reflect on this call and response from the Iona Community in Scotland:
Light look down
and saw darkness.
“I WILL GO THERE,” SAID LIGHT.
Peace looked down and saw war.
“I WILL GO THERE,’ SAID PEACE.
Love looked down
and saw hatred.
“I WILL GO THERE,” SAID LOVE.
the Lord of Light,
the Prince of Peace,
the King of Love,
and crept in
From Cloth For the Cradle. Copyright (c) 1997 Wild Goose Resource Group, Iona Community. GIA Publications, Inc., exclusive North American Distributor.