Have you ever noticed how the lectionary readings for Advent are, in effect, Christmas spelled backwards? Yes, Christmas spelled backwards. And that makes the tragedy of Advent Lost in our culture all the keener.
Yes, few would contest my claim that Advent has gotten lost in our culture. While other parts of the church year have taken good and deep root in many churches across traditions in the last forty years or so, Advent remains a liturgical stepchild at best. Christmas rules here – and its reach each year seems to engulf more and more of the calendar. And not the biblical and liturgical Christmas of the church - the 12 day season from December 25 to Epiphany, January 6. No, the Christmas/Holiday season for us runs from mid-Fall to December 25.
Do you see what is happening here? By effacing Advent and limiting Christmas to December 25 (erasing the 12 Days of Christmas), our culture’s understanding and celebration of Christ’s birth is focused solely on the babe in the manger! And we love babies! Most of us get warm and ooey-gooey feelings about infants. Wrap those feelings in bright colors and delicious food, time off from work and with extended family, treasured memories – well, you all know what I’m talking about! Christmas is about the baby Jesus!
And we get so focused on the so-called “miracles” of Christmas that we often miss the miracle of Christmas (Barth). Oh, we hear and say all the right words in church during this time – Son of God, incarnation, forgiveness of sins, and so on. But it would be an intrepid soul, indeed, who would claim that this is for most worshipers much more than the expected cant of the season, part of the atmosphere without which it would not quite be Christmas.
Advent, if against all odds the church could shake free of “Christmas” and indwell this season of the church year again, has the potential to save Christmas from its mutant alter ego.
How so, you ask? Because Advent is Christmas spelled backwards. The texts the Lectionary assigns for Advent make this clear. All three years of the lectionary cycle follow a similar pattern. Here are the gospel readings for each year.
-First Sunday of Advent (Mt.24:36-44; Mk.13:24-37; Lk.21:25-36)
These readings are about the return of the Son of Man/Son at the “end of the age.” Thus Advent begins by pointing us to the end, the Christ-child in his full grown power and glory. Advent thus starts by pointing us away from the baby to the (Son of) man. It gives us the largest possible horizon within which to understand and celebrate the full significance of the baby!
-Second Sunday of Advent (Mt.3:1-12; Mk.1:1-8; Lk.3:1-6)
We keep working our way backward to the manger by considering John the Baptist, Jesus’ great forerunner. John sets up Jesus’ ministry as one of judgment and cleansing of the people of Israel as the inauguration of God’s great New Exodus.
-Third Sunday of Advent (Mt.11:2-11; Jn.1:6-8, 19-28; Lk.3:7-18)
This week’s readings are also about John the Baptist. In Mt. John asks Jesus if he really is the messiah after all. Jesus tells him to look at what he is doing and then identifies John to a crowd as the “Elijah” promised to come as messiah’s herald. Jn. Similarly dubs John a divinely ordained witness to Jesus who is also the promised “Elijah.” In Lk. John’s message excites messianic fervor around himself but he points them instead to the more powerful one who is to come.
-Fourth Sunday of Advent (Mt.1:18-25; Lk.1:26-38; Lk.1:39-45)
In Mt. we finally get the birth story, viewed as fulfillment of prophecy. Lk.1:26-38 is the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary extolling him as “Son of the Most High,” David’s greatest heir to Israel’s throne. Lk.1:39-45 Elizabeth gives a Spirit-inspired blessing to Mary, the mother of the promised One.
Now, and only now, are we ready for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Faithful attendance to these readings and worship shaped by them will make it difficult if not impossible to only the babe in the manger and get caught up in the different forms of sentimentality that tend to smother the significance of Christmas day for us. If we then work to recover the 12 Days of Christmas as the season it is and allow the significance of this child pointed toward in Advent to unfold as we move toward Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the world, well, that I suggest constitutes a biblical “Christmas”!