“It’s party time!” Jason shouted, pumping his fists in the air. It was the first day of my first year in a classical school. My new students had just entered their fourth-grade classroom immediately following chapel. “You better nip that in the bud,” a colleague reproached me sternly. Fourth grade was not (I hope) abject misery, but the first day of school certainly was not party time.
I had a similar sensation as I entered a shopping center on Friday afternoon. I just wanted some groceries so we could eat dinner. Somehow, since last Advent I had forgotten just how insufferable that area becomes during the Christmas season. Everyone is frantic as if pumping their fists in the air, shouting, “It’s party time!” But it isn’t party time—it’s contemplation time. As I step into the contagious frenzied environment, I say to my soul, “You better nip that in the bud.”
Christmas without Advent is like a party on the first day of fourth grade—it’s not yet time. Christian time is not kept by the retail calendar but by the church calendar. The liturgical calendar is a wise counselor, teaching us when to fast and when to feast. It continually hearkens to a pattern of life oriented around Reality. When my children were small, I was still an infant in my understanding of Christian time. Each year there was just a little more decorating or one more tradition that we had to complete so that it would “feel like Christmas.” But each year, as Christmas arrived, I was so glutted with it all I just couldn’t wait to be done. Let’s just clean up the wrapping paper and get on with our real lives. Christmas without Advent is a shoddy trick.
The Reality of Advent is not a deprivation; instead, it is a time of contemplation and preparation. On each of the four Sundays of Advent, we contemplate one of the last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Thus, we usher in the Christian year with a meditation on death. Why death? Is not Christmas about a birth? Well, pregnancy is a sort of death. Recently, my ten-year-old son asked me why, in books, people always died in childbirth. Well, I responded, probably because in the past people often died in childbirth. I explained the advances of modern medicine for which, in this case, I am grateful. Even so, my anticipation of the labor and delivery of my first child was similar to my contemplation of death. When will it happen? How bad will it hurt? Will something go wrong? Am I up for it? What if I’m not up for it?
Modern medicine can’t cure pain and death; they only disorder our expectations about them. There are machines and medical professionals, but nothing is certain. During that first birth, the worst pain was neither the labor nor the delivery: it was the interventions used to stop the hemorrhaging. The doctor on call was a highly revered OB, but highly revered OBs can’t do anything about the size of a baby. Labor and delivery pains made sense; there is a clear telos. But who’s to say when hemorrhaging stops? There seemed to be so much blood and, for a tense moment, I wondered if my son would grow up without a mother.
Though Advent does contemplate Christ’s birth, it primarily orients us towards Christ’s second coming. The second coming of the long-expected Jesus will be the death of death. Advent prepares us for what comes before the death of death: memento mori. Remember that you must die. The month of December is a perpetual choice between the following: on one hand, waiting in line for a sugary latte so that you will have a sugary latte to drink while you wait in the next line. On the other, contemplation so that you might wait well for Christ’s return and the judgment that will follow.
Lest you think death in December is a big downer during party time, consider the following:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
3 and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
5 O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord.
(Isaiah 2:2-5, ESV)
Let us walk in the light of the Lord, for in our end is our beginning. Maranatha.