The Advent that changed Christmas
An abiding theme, even a perennial desire, of our celebrations of Christmas is the practice of continuity. We look for sameness; we want to gaze at the familiar. Food, customs, and holiday rituals can provide us the signs that we are looking for, the reminders that despite everything being different this past year, Christmas offers us a respite, a season of sameness, a calm of continuity. This is why, when we are confronted by change, disturbed by difference, during the Christmas season, it can seem more troubling than if it happened back in August. We are aware as well that for many people the Christmas season is a time of acute grief, a sad time evoked by a fundamental change in a person’s life since the last Christmas. They are faced by the undeniable and painful reality that this Christmas will not be the same as past ones, and there is nothing they can do about it. No keeping of traditions, no customary decorations, no amount of effort or will on their part will establish a continuity, a sameness, they once had. Change has come to our life, and we cannot replace it with our decorative past or our seasonal sameness.
What about this Covid-Christmas season we are facing? How de we prepare for this Christmas season? The answer is Advent; this has always been the answer to preparing for Christmas. In fact, if we do not get Advent right, we will not get Christmas right. And here is the direct truth of Advent, and thus of Christmas: It is a season of change, the days that bring difference to our lives, even disturbingly so at times. We are called to remember the words of that saint of Advent, John the Baptist, who said, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is near.” Repent, go in a different direction than you have been going. Or, to paraphrase, you have to change if you want to enter the Kingdom of God. Why? Because the arrival of Jesus is the arrival of God’s difference. Jesus is God’s “change-agent.” While we might yearn for familiarity, Jesus is God’s familiarity with us so that we can live into the difference that God is offering us: “you must be born again.” Mary of Nazareth could certainly tell us how the arrival of Jesus radically changed her life. So with Mary, so for the world.
It is good to recall that Advent does not just mean “coming,” but “coming toward.” Advent is the breaking-in of God’s future for us; it is not our effort to maintain the sameness of the present, the contrived continuity of the past. Advent is preparation to be changed by the difference that arrives as Jesus into the world. This is another way of saying that a true celebration of the Christmas Season will render us changed; we will emerge from it different than we were before we entered it. How do we do that? We can practice this difference now by reading slowly one of the Gospels, particularly Matthew, and we can pray for this world, for others and for ourselves, interceding before Jesus our Great High Priest for all the people whose lives have been changed by oppression, sickness, grief, loneliness, hunger, fear, displacement from homes, and by death. We seek first the Kingdom of God by looking to see how we can make a difference in peoples’ lives by gifts, and by our willingness to listen to their cries for help.
This Christmas will be different because Jesus arrives, because the Kingdom of God has drawn near. This is the message that all those Christmas seasons of the past were trying to tell us. Maybe now we will hear it; maybe this year we will celebrate the true Christmas, the one for which this Advent prepares us.
The Rev. Ralph N. McMicael’s new book, The Eucharistic Faith (London: SCM Press, 2019) is available at Amazon and other booksellers. This is the first volume of a five-volume series about Eucharistic systematic theology. He currently is working on the second volume, The Eucharistic God to be published by Cascade Books in 2023.