Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:5-11, 16-18 (“Pray without ceasing”)
Every Advent, the following debate surfaces: is Christmas secular or religious?
Today, we are in the middle of Advent, a season that includes the four Sundays before Christmas. And while the retail and entertainment industries try to conflate Advent and Christmas, they are two distinct seasons. Advent is a month of prayer and repentance before December 25 while Christmas is the 12 days from December 25 to January 6 in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The differences between the two seasons are evident in carols. Christmas carols celebrate the nativity of Jesus while Advent carols focus on preparation for the coming of Christ. Some Advent carols like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are beloved while those that focus on judgement and the prophecies of John the Baptist like “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness” are not as well-known or liked.
This Advent, the debate about the place of secular and religious elements in Christmas has been joined by a new movie about Charles Dickens. I haven’t yet seen “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” but I look forward to it.
The movie is based on the notion that Dickens’ popular 1843 book “A Christmas Carol” helped to establish many of today’s Christmas traditions — things like turkey, Christmas trees, and family gatherings on the secular side and a turn from greed to selfless charity on the spiritual side.
“A Christmas Carol” also illustrates the connection between Advent and Christmas, I believe. While all the action takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, the bulk of the story has an Advent feel.
It begins as the protagonist Ebeneezer Scrooge eats a lonely and meager Christmas Eve meal where he is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marley. Marley says that Scrooge will see three more Spirits during the night.
The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his childhood with his late sister Fran and of his failed engagement to a woman named Belle.
The Ghost of Christmas Present presents Scrooge with scenes of happy family meals and of the terrible suffering of the poor.
The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge the funerals of two people: one friendless and unloved — Scrooge himself — and one beloved –Tiny Tim, who is the crippled child of Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit.
Only when Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning does the mood change. When Scrooge realizes that he has time to turn his life around, he joyously repents of his selfish and ungenerous ways.
Because most of the action is with four ghosts, one could rename Dickens’ book “An Advent Carol.” The ghosts lead Scrooge on a painful spiritual journey that begins with prophecy and that is heavy with the threat of judgement and death.
As a child, I loved watching the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” every year even if it frightened me. It gave me a sense that Christmas was not all tinsel and parties. It was also a time to confront life’s shadows and an opportunity for spiritual growth.
I was also glad how the story knit together the secular and the religious aspects of Christmas, the soulful and the spiritual.
The reading we heard this morning from St. Paul leans more to the spiritual than the soulful. He writes about light, wakefulness, and prayer.
Paul’s words about praying without ceasing connect to the concept of mindfulness, which is about being aware of one’s feelings, thoughts, and perceptions from moment to moment. As followers of Christ, we can use such awareness to give thanks for God’s Grace and to pray for healing, peace and justice.
Achieving a high level of mindfulness can lead to a kind of ecstasy — what Paul calls rejoicing always. But as anyone who has tried to develop a meditation practice can attest, it is a challenge to be awake to the flow of every moment. Much of the time, we drift into unconsciousness, and every night we fall asleep. Prayer without ceasing is a wonderful goal, I believe, but few of us can achieve it.
The good news is that seasons of prayer like Advent have both a beginning and end. We began Advent two weeks ago with a service focused on Hope. We will end the season next Sunday with a service focused on Love. Then Christmas will follow, an annual celebration of birth and light that weaves together the spiritual and the secular in the most wondrous ways.
Personally, I don’t see a great need to draw a line between the secular side of Advent, which includes gift-shopping, tree decorating, and stringing lights, and the religious side, which is about repentance and prayer. Both sides can yield joy, although the secular joys are more oriented to soul and the religious joys are more oriented to spirit.
Nor do I see a great need to draw a sharp line between the secular side of Christmas, which includes parties with family and friends, and its spiritual side, which is about the birth of Jesus and the coming of salvation. Both sides of Christmas feed us, with the secular side leaning more to comfort and the spiritual side leaning more to joy.
Nor do I see a great need to separate the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Advent is a time of discovery in which we journey in a prayerful spirit of repentance. Christmas is a time of celebration as we arrive both at Bethlehem and at family dinner tables to relax, feast, and revel in love. Both seasons influence the other, and I find it understandable that each year they bleed into each other.
Finally, I don’t see a great need to “put the Christ back in Christmas” anymore than I see a great need to “Keep Christmas out of Advent.” However we prepare for the rebirth of Christ in our hearts this year, and however we celebrate the coming of the solstice, we will inevitably blend the soulful with the spiritual and combine elements from our pagan and Christian roots with popular traditions of the last 150 years.
Advent doesn’t last forever anymore than our prayers do, regardless of what St. Paul suggests. In the yin and yang of Advent and Christmas, I am glad that the soulful and the spiritual sides weave together to make communities that are both human and divine and that provide both comfort and joy.
For all of us this Advent and Christmas, I pray it may be so.