The First Sunday of Advent kicks off not the Christmas season, but the Advent Season. Our culture, however, has swallowed up Advent. Christmas begins as soon as Thanksgiving is over and ends as soon as we return to work. Radio stations that go to an all-Christmas format for the shopping season return to playing light rock on December 26.
First Things has re-printed (re-posted? What is the proper thing to say in the digital age for something that was originally produced in print and is re-produced in pixels?) an essay by editor Joseph Bottum entitled, The End of Advent:
“Christmas has devoured Advent, gobbled it up with the turkey giblets and the goblets of seasonal ale. Every secularized holiday, of course, tends to lose the context it had in the liturgical year. Across the nation, even in many churches, Easter has hopped across Lent, Halloween has frightened away All Saints, and New Year’s has drunk up Epiphany.”
I disagree. Lent kicks off in a big way on Ash Wednesday. Not only do we go to mass and receive ashes (in the middle of the week, no less!), we fast and abstain from meat. We give things up. For six weeks we look ahead with anticipation not to Easter, which we know is coming, but to the Good Friday that preceeds it. Having reached and passed through Good Friday, we burst into Easter with full joy. Lent is penance and anticipation of the Passion; Easter is joyful celebration that death has been conquered. The seasons are distinctly different, and rightly so.
Advent has been swallowed up by Christmas. It requires a conscious, counter-cultural effort to make the season into what it is supposed to be. Bottum, in his essay, notes, “What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it towards its goal.” Some well-intentioned souls want to turn Advent into another Lent, but I don’t think that the seasons share the same character. There is no analogy to Good Friday and the remembrance of the Crucifixion at the end of Advent. Christmas is the great celebration at the end of Advent, but immediately after celebrating the birth of our Savior, we remember the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, and the slaughter of the innocents at the jealous hand of Herod.
Advent is harder to embrace – harder to keep separate from Christmas. We shouldn’t try too hard to keep it separate, lest we become scrooges to the Christmas frivolity that surrounds us. Yet, at the same time, we should not forget that Advent is all about waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord.