|12/1/2016 9:00:00 AM|
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGEREach Advent come exhortations from Christian pulpits to "slow down." Just when every other force and fury around us is screaming, "Hurry up!" the Church is out there being its counter-cultural self, ever the sign of contradiction in the world.
That's with good reason. Our message is one of liberation, of freedom from what ties us down and suppresses our true humanity. No surprise, then, to hear the call, "Take back Advent and stop rushing Christmas!"
It's always nice to see the sparkling lights popping up through our darkest winter nights. Pagan societies were the first to start the practice, for they had no "light" or "fire" other than what they could conjure up themselves.
Christians, on the other hand, believe it is the Light that comes to us: a gift, not a product or a spell we must conjure up.
No law says the Christmas tree must go up the day after Thanksgiving. Chances are, any living pine or spruce that goes up now is a goner by Christmas, the last bit of sap in its sagging arms having parched in the sauna-like dryness of domestic heat.
From a Christian perspective, the whole point of a tree in the house is to have a sign of life throughout the dead of winter to remind us of the Lord of life. What a downer to be sweeping up the fallen needles on Christmas Eve, when winter has barely begun!
Even if the tree can wait, shopping hardly stands a chance. According to a fresh poll from the "Think Finance" online lending platform, 45 percent of Americans would rather skip Christmas. Doubtless, "Christmas" here means the commerce of Christmas, an expression of stress and strain from the time and financial burdens.
To manage this, some families have opted for a simpler "Kris Kringle," at least for the adults. Everyone likes to shop for the kids, but, as a rule, that is not where the pressure lies. Your adult "Kris Kringle," on the other hand, who picks your name from a pool, would be shopping (unknown) just for you. The surprise factor remains; the likelihood of receiving a quality gift that won't need returning increases. Excessive expense of time and money is saved.
Families in our Diocese have many wonderful Advent traditions. Advent is, after all, a season of prayer and preparation. Even cards and Christmas cookies can be agents of grace.
Our Latino communities have the beautiful custom of the Posada, observing this tradition of visiting one another's homes and sharing Scripture, faith and food as a commemoration of events before the birth of Jesus. The custom of Advent "lessons and carols" has been a mainstay in many English-speaking communities, though the tradition of Christmas carols and Nativity scenes seems actually to have originated in Italy.
Speaking of Nativity scenes, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI published a wonderful book a few years ago: "Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives," the third and last volume of a biography of Jesus. It contains some interesting observations.
Unfortunately, initial reviews are not uniformly reliable. To read some is to get the impression that the Holy Father Emeritus would ban animals from Nativity sets and wipe the name of Jesus off the calendar on Dec. 25. (Anyone doubting the Vatican's appreciation of the traditional Nativity display only has to visit the Vatican website from Christmas Eve through Feb. 2 to view the webcam of St. Peter's Square!)
In reality, Pope Benedict, an outstanding theologian, does a historical fact check, calling attention to the real meaning of Christmas. A reading of the book would be a perfect Advent exercise, at once intellectually stimulating and spiritually enriching.
Over two millennia of history, Christians have developed many creative traditions and customs to celebrate the birth of Jesus, not all of them referenced in the Bible. Long before the pope emeritus' book, many scholars surmised that Jesus was not born on Dec. 25 -- indeed, several years earlier than 1 AD -- and not with cattle breathing on Him. Nor were Northern pine or spruce trees in the vicinity.
Our most splendid Christmas paintings tell us as much about the landscape of artisans from Tuscany and the Netherlands than they do about Christ's Bethlehem. None of this changes the Christmas message: The all-high God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, becomes incarnate in the womb of the virgin Mary; is born nine months later; and is given the name Jesus to be our Savior, to die and to rise that we might live eternally.
There are as many ways to celebrate as there are people and cultures. There's no need to limit our imaginations. In fact, why not resist the temptation to be stifled by demands imposed by a world focused less on its Savior than on instant gratification?
Why not reclaim Advent and let Christmas come to us?
(This column previously appeared in The Tablet, the newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)
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