I remember one year, at my summer job back when I was in college, I had to make a trip into Walmart to pick something up, and was disturbed by the fact that in August, the store was starting to assemble the Christmas trees. Amazing! Of course, this was an extreme instance, but the complaint every year is that Christmas creeps up earlier and earlier.
In the church, we do the same thing. We push the Christmas season to start an entire month before the season begins. For those who do not know, in the church, the Christmas season officially starts at sundown on Christmas Eve, and lasts for 12 days until Epiphany. But, like many traditional aspects of Christianity, we don’t treat Christmas this way anymore. Like us, there are many congregations where the Advent season and the Christmas season have become one, with the Christmas music and themes bleeding into the Advent time.
For many clergy, this is a difficult struggle. Theologically, we are called to celebrate the birth, life, and death of Christ every day, yet there are many aspects of Advent that are important to the spiritual discipline. I remember some very interesting debates in seminary over this, and sadly, I also know of some real fights between pastors and their congregations.
Personally, I find the debate around keeping Advent separate to be akin to the complaining that Christmas is “coming too early” in stores and other establishments. Probably the #1 point that people make regarding “Christmas coming too early” in the stores and the “church needing to celebrate Advent” is that the oversaturation diminishes the message and sacredness of the holiday. For me, that is kind of a weak argument, since what is holy and sacred can never truly be diminished, no matter what.
However, the desire to engage in the discipline of Advent is much more intriguing, especially considering that our culture is so instant. Advent comes from the Latin, adventus, which is means "coming." Waiting is a big part of the message of Christ. For hundreds and thousands of years, people waited for the coming of the Messiah, yet we often find a struggle in waiting a few days for Christmas to come.
However, I must say that the discipline of Advent is not only about waiting. Probably more important is the fact that Advent is a time of preparation or building. I think back to my favorite toys of my childhood: LEGOs and Matchbox cars. I often used them interchangeably, involving a great deal of work and effort. I remember the joy I had creating the LEGO towns and roads for my Matchbox cars. I worked to make sure everything was right, and only then did I break out the Matchbox car to play with. There was always a satisfaction to completing the task before enjoying the game.
For us, the discipline of Advent is about creating a place in our hearts so that when the time of waiting has come to an end, we might find and connect with God on a much deeper level. Like I said, I am not one to make a big deal about celebrating Christmas early. In fact, I love to sing Christmas carols all throughout Advent!
However, I think there is a real need for us to engage with the discipline of Advent. We need to find a space where we can both witness to the fact that Christ has come, but also prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ again. So is it wrong to celebrate Christmas early? Not really, but we miss out on something special when we do not take the time to prepare.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen