We looked out the window and saw nothing but black. As I sat with a friend a few days ago, we were surprised to realize that while we were talking the light of day had disappeared and night had fallen. He glanced at the time and laughed, “It’s not even five o’clock yet.” Winter has come and stolen much of our daylight. For another season, the world has gone to sleep. Our trees are bare, and our gardens empty. Creatures big and small still themselves until spring returns.
The funny thing is that as the natural world slows down each year, we humans throw ourselves into our yearly frenzy. There is no other time of year when our senses are so assaulted, by the sound and sights of Christmas tunes and advertisements, by the smells and tastes of treats and feasts, by that bursting sensation in our guts after we enjoy those treats and feasts.
There is something jarring about Advent and Christmas. We idealize this season as a time of peace and joy. Our most cherished memories of it are of moments spent with those we love, of happy young children, and of sacred celebrations of the Nativity. But the quiet and joy is often crowded out by experiences of frustration and worry, of shopping trips to crowded big-box stores, of complicated arrangements for travel on busy roads and airports, and of wondering how we will pay for the shopping spree that we always promise to scale back on next year.
We are caught in this contest between the two sides of Christmas every year, and we likely always will be. We might fast the length of Advent, observe all the rites and rituals of the liturgical calendar in preparing for the Feast of the Nativity, but the world about us will continue on its own pace. We live in this world; we are part of it. Its frenzied rhythm will work its way into our bodies; its anxieties and frustrations will interrupt our moments of quiet and still.
In fact, there may be something right about the tension we feel this time of year, some echo of the sacred story the season recalls. Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of a Prince of Peace into a world constantly at war. On Christmas, we proclaim the good news of the arrival of a king of justice and charity to a society beset by systemic poverty and bigotry. As we celebrate the birth of a savior, in the back of our minds we cannot forget that his ministry among us will end when he is put to death by our own hands (a reality explored in Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb’s essay “On Death in December”).
This tension then might be exactly what we should be feeling. In Advent, we await the coming of a light of hope into the darkness of winter. In the miracle of the birth of Christ, the divine and the mortal, the ephemeral and the eternal, the sacred and the secular are all bound together. We live in a world where a promise has been made, but not yet fulfilled. We know the Kingdom of God is coming, but we know not the day or hour of its arrival.
So we are left caught between two Christmas stories: the Christmas of a little babe in a manger and the Christmas of a big sale at the mall, a Christmas that marks the birth of a savior into the world and a Christmas that fills that same world with noise and greed and anxiety. And in these early winter days, when night falls earlier than it ought and we feel the clamor and pressure of our times, we can see more clearly than in any other season the world as it is and the world as it might be. In Advent, a choice that faces us every day of the year is drawn much more sharply. In this season, we must choose if our lives will add to the noise and conflict that fill the darkness, or if our lives will kindle the light of hope and justice and charity that comes into our world with the birth of Christ.