Dear Friends of Penn Central
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” (Matthew 25:31)
Ask people to describe the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas and you will likely hear a long list. In American society we experience a dizzying combination of excessive consumption, astonishing generosity, joyful family reunions, Blue Christmas grief and sadness, cyber sales, cookies of every kind, new movie releases, family arguments, Rudolf and Charlie Brown, Advent wreaths, spiked eggnog, and more. Our multiple screens and media outlets multiply the images, songs, and pleas of the season. The in-between days have become a time of tension between the secular demands of the “holiday shopping season” and the religious preparation of Advent.
What a contrast to what my Puritan ancestors would have known at this time of year. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, and only some calendars of the time would include the Feast Day of Christ’s birth on the 25
of December. Further back, during the Middle Ages, Advent was known as a Lenten season in which believers prepared for the second coming of Christ. Our lectionary readings for early Advent reflect this, with a focus on the end times and apocalyptic visions of Jesus as the returning judge. The modern understanding of Christmas - with a focus on the nativity in particular - is relatively recent.
The emphasis on the nativity at this time of year is easy for us. There is, after all, such great music and art depicting the baby Jesus in his mother’s arms, surrounded by soft-eyed cattle, donkeys and sheep. The wise men add royalty and exoticism to the scene. The angels and shepherds watch over the stable and bring praise to the newborn king. Our emotions are stirred when we hear “O Holy Night” and when we light our candles and sing “Silent Night” together.
Perhaps my Puritan ancestors are to blame, but I confess that I’m drawn to the practice of Advent as a Lenten season as well. There is something challenging in that idea. Something that feels like spiritual house-cleaning. A time of preparation and self-examination. A time of provocative scripture that awakens the soul. As the year comes to a close I need the penitential reflection time and the humbling apocalyptic visions. I need to be reminded that Jesus is not only my savior-as-a-baby, but also my judge. I want to hear John the Baptist calling me to repent and to bear fruit worthy of repentance. As the year draws to a close, I want to be reminded of the demands of my discipleship and pushed to examine myself. Not only whether I have enough wrapping paper, but instead, is my soul truly prepared for the coming of the king?