We set unusually ambitious goals for the season---purchase the right, life-changing present for everyone close to you, dress festively and appear joyous while attending plenty of holiday parties, mail a Christmas letter hand-written in cursive to everyone you've known since elementary school, transform your indoor living space into a Christmas fantasia, and adorn the front yard with at least 5,000,000,000 lights.
Then we kick ourselves for being too busy, forgetting the "reason for the season," and not saving enough or giving sufficiently to the poor.
During Advent, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to shop, a lot, while keeping it simple. We want to calmly sit around the fire sipping hot cider, and we want to volunteer as a Salvation Army bell-ringer.
The video produced this year for the Advent Conspiracy illustrates the point (http://www.adventconspiracy.org). Take time to watch it now if you aren't busy knitting a Norwegian sweater for your grandmother:
The message is solid. I'm fundamentally in agreement with it. It's true. If we spent less on Christmas and gave more money away to help ensure clean water around the world, lives would be saved. I am totally, 100% in favor of the idea that more of us should give more of our wealth away, especially to ministries that ensure access to clean water. For my money, I suggest Lutheran World Relief (www.lwr.org).
On the other hand, our typical way of talking about this season does tend to turn the Advent narrative into one of guilt. Most of us are embedded in a culture where the sharing of gifts is an important, essential part of our holiday tradition. We aren't going to stop. It is not at all clear to me how kicking ourselves over our holiday shopping is helpful. It might even be a kind of communal self-deception--if we at least talk bad about ourselves while engaging in a practice, it may help us justify it a bit more in our minds.
It's like saying, "I really shouldn't eat this third piece of chocolate cheesecake." We don't mean it, because we're eating it, but it assuages some guilt-sensor in our brains if we at least admit our compulsions while doing nothing about them.
To be honest, I don't know what to do about this Catch-22 we find ourselves in. Every year, we dread the very season we hope for and anticipate. We distract ourselves from Jesus by celebrating his birth. We fail in our religious commitments by exercising a peculiar religiosity.
This year, as a leader of a faith community, I've decided the only real answer is prayer. We need to consider again what prayer is, what it's for. We need to learn from others how to pray.
For our Advent suppers and evening prayer, we are going to host guest speakers each Wednesday on the topic of prayer. On December 4th, Lowell Grisham, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal, will speak on contemplative prayer. On December 11th, Dennis Peterson, director of the Fayetteville PrayerRoom, will share about their ecumenical adventure in hosting a place of prayer for all people. On December 18th, a member of our congregation, Fern Kelsay, will talk about our prayer chain, and her longstanding practice of leading the prayer chain in prayer for the needs of our congregation.
Sundays during Advent will also be focused on prayer. We will consider a focus image each week. December 1st, we consider how bells call us to awareness of the need for prayer. On December 8th, we allow the hand of John to point us to prayer in Christ. On December 15th, we consider how candles represent the sustaining of our prayers, and on December 22nd, we reflect on Mary's prayer for justice and the kingdom of God.
I do not honestly know whether an Advent focus on prayer resolves any of our present Advent difficulties. Advent for me is an enigma embedded in a riddle. It is too important to abandon, and too conflicted to naively embrace. Advent drives us to pray, even as we increasingly puzzle over and complexify prayer's meaning.
I wonder... how do you think about Advent? Where does the paradox identified here resonate in your own life?