Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent is a Dangerous Season

Commenting on Mark 13:24-37 (the Gospel reading assigned for this first Sunday in Advent), Matthew Skinner writes about the dangerous character of the Advent season for the Huffington Post:

Here comes Black Friday, even earlier than usual. Bell-ringers are appearing outside stores. Advertisers are shifting the consumerism-as-therapy machine into high gear. And Christians say: This is a good time to think about the world falling apart.

We're not trying to be morose. We're starting Advent.

The season of Advent (four Sundays preceding Christmas) traditionally begins, not with backward-looking remembrances of circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth, but with eerie images of cosmic mutations and grand promises of a future in which Jesus plays -- to put it mildly -- a noticeable role. Don't wear the tacky Christmas sweater just yet; track shoes and a hazmat suit may capture the mood better. ...

The impulses behind Advent should alarm those who are overly enamored with the current system (who probably number more than 1 percent), as well as any others who are overly confident in their ability to engineer what's best for the world.

Advent expresses the insistence that all is not right in our societies. That's a dangerous expression. Stoking hopes for a new world order, for justice really to be for all, usually implies that old systems, governments and loyalties aren't what they're cracked up to be.

Notice: The transformation anticipated in Mark 13:24-37 is such a monumental and all-encompassing upheaval, its description must resort to symbolism. The symbolism is unnerving, even though it was familiar to ancient audiences. It suggests that, in the face of the God's desires coming to full fruition, every other power (symbolized by sun, moon and stars) receives notice and sees its light go out. No aspect of human existence goes untransformed when God enters in for good.

The claims of Advent should rattle all who benefit from exploitative and domineering forms of power. This means a lot of us, of course.

I'm struck again this year by how quickly so many people in my neighborhood - most of whom are churchgoers - have already decorated for Christmas. The tree and ornaments go up almost as soon as the sun sets on Thanksgiving Day. And by the afternoon of Christmas Day, all of the decorations come down, with Christmas trees on every curbside waiting for the garbage pickup.

Perhaps, in light of Skinner's piece, we find Advent so disturbing and subversive that we bypass the season in our haste to get on with the good cheer of Christmas. Then again, many Christians in my neck of the woods belong to non-liturgical churches and thus may not even be familiar with the term "Advent" (much less the idea that there are twelve days of Christmas!). And even many of my fellow Episcopalians (clergy included) seem confused by this most complex of seasons, some even openly denying that Advent is a penitential season (in spite of the evidence to the contrary in the lectionary readings and collects appointed for each Sunday).

Regardless, when it comes to the dangerous season of Advent (as with so many other aspects of Christian faith and practice), the Church has lost and the secular culture has won. Rather than serving as an occasion for lament, perhaps the increasing marginalization of things like Advent offers an opportunity for Christians who inhabit liturgical traditions to bear renewed witness to the Light in the darkness of this world. One thing is for sure: doing so means standing out from the crowd's celebration of our consumer culture’s Advent-trumping version of Christmas.

h/t to BC at Catholicity and Covenant for bringing Skinner's article to my attention.


Apis Melliflora said...

Advent is perhaps the most difficult time of year for a Christian to NOT be affected by the ways of this world.

Bryan Owen said...

I think you may be right, Apis Melliflora!