“A Simple Hope”

Matthew 24:36-44: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”  The message in the Gospel of Matthew is:  “Be prepared.”  Jesus said it, the apostle Paul emphasized it, and even the Boy Scouts picked it up as their own slogan.  The season of Advent begins today with its advice for us to “be prepared.”  So what are we preparing for? 

Are we preparing our hearts and spirits to receive the coming of the Christ child into the world?  Or are we preparing for a final month of frenzied shopping, holiday headaches, economic worries, weight gain, endless renditions of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, shopping mall traffic, and the general atmosphere of desperation, depression, anxiety and rage that accompanies all of these?  Despite the troubles we’ve undergone in the last few years due to COVID, now that we’re “free again,” to go out-and-about, how many of us are still caught up in a consumer Christmas?

            One of the most obvious signs this season has taken on is its interminable length.  While many wait until after Thanksgiving to begin Christmas decorating, the message of “buy, buy, buy” is the same for months – holiday advertising began back in September!

Just to give some perspective, the church historically has actually shortened its Advent season over the centuries.  Until the fourth century, and before Christmas itself was officially observed, there was a church season that began on November 11 (called St. Martin’s Day) to January 6 (Epiphany). But unlike the extended consumer season today, this was a kind of Winter Lent, with about 40 days of prayer and fasting, penitence and self-denial in preparation for the baptisms that would take place on Epiphany. 

I don’t think this would have been a season that today’s secular society would get much business from – each spring, you don’t see many “Special Lenten Sales” publicized in our stores before Easter.

          By the sixth century, the church had begun to celebrate Christmas and re-organized its calendar to accommodate it.  The season of Winter Lent was shortened to four weeks and given the name Advent (which means “coming” or “arrival”).  Even though the penitential aspect of Advent has been lost to us in practice, we still recall that original focus by using the color purple (symbolizing the periods of preparation and repentance) in our worship.  Just like at Easter, we spend time recognizing our humanity and our limitations, so that we can be better prepared for the joy of the new life Christ’s birth brings.  But somehow we’ve managed to transform a season of preparing for Christ’s birth into a condensed exercise in absorption with things and money, grabbing and getting.  

          But we don’t have to live this way.  It’s up to us, Christ’s church, to save Advent from being labeled as nothing more than the “last number of shopping days left before Christmas.”  

The answer isn’t to try and go back to some austere, purified version of this season.  The Puritans were the last to try that on a cultural scale. The 17th-century Puritans actually banned the public celebration of Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for an entire generation.  They saw Christmas as a wasteful festival that threatened Christian beliefs and encouraged immoral activities.

So I’m not advocating Puritanism!  While I’m glad that today we’re more able to move about with fewer masks and perhaps a bit less worried about COVID, I hope that the COVID existence we endured for these many months can re-orient us, help us recognize the value of simplicity, realizing that Less is More.  (And here is where I’ll put a plug in for our Advent devotionals that you can pick up in the narthex.)

Remember that the word “holiday” comes from the words “holy day.”  We think of a holiday as a break from our ordinary routines and a time to relax and enjoy our favorite activities.  

But holidays actually contribute to the compartmentalization of our lives – separating our work lives from our home lives, our responsible, serious, all-business selves from our fun-loving, frivolous, carefree selves.

          Holy days should have exactly the opposite effect.  Sacred seasons like Advent are holy because they nurture us into being whole, complete, healthy people. Time spent preparing for holy days, like Advent, should be a time to slow down the wheel of whatever rat race we’re usually competing in and to see just where it is we’re heading.  

So during this Advent season, what do we place our hope in?  Are we pointing towards Bethlehem or Bloomingdale’s?  Holy days, if they’re truly holy, don’t fit neatly into a “religious” compartment in our lives.  The power and grace of a holy day spills out over everything and everyone we encounter.  Preparing for the holy day of Christ’s birth is what Advent is all about.  So let us be prepared, every day!  Amen.