December is for many the busiest time of the year. It’s a month that can stretch our budgets, our patience, and after a solid month of feasting, our pants as well. Some travel to be closer to family and friends; others provide home base for family time together. And there are cards to get out and trees to decorate and presents to buy and wrap all while playing Christmas music in the background or watching Frosty the Snowman and It’s a Wonderful Life.
The season does feel like it comes with some difficult expectations. And one of the most difficult ones has to do with “holiday cheer.” We are supposed to be happy during the “Most wonderful time of the year,” aren’t we? In the life of the church, baby Jesus is coming, and how can we be sad or in grief while picturing the bucolic setting of the Jesus wrapped and laying in the manger among the on-looking stable animals.
These images of the good old-fashioned family Christmas, however, work better on the screen or in our loveable but shmaltzy Christmas music. Many in our church and in the wider community will spend this holiday time away from their families. Others will not have enough to buy presents this year. Some will spend the holiday alone. And for many of us, this time is a mixed blessing - a time when we are blessed to be around our loved ones and a time when we acutely feel the loss of those who are no longer with us.
The Season of Advent begins on December 2nd, the first Sunday of the new Christian year. Far from being a month-long baby shower for Jesus, the themes of Advent focus on hope, expectation and promise. We wouldn’t focus on hope if everything was alright. We wouldn’t expect God to do something new if the way we’ve been going about living was perfect. And we wouldn’t need to be reminded of the promise that God is ever and always with us if we felt that all the time. Maybe we come to worship services to hear these words of encouragement – but the season requires a little more.
In Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry does something very powerful in the quote above. He makes the practice of faith local. It wasn’t gold-laden, stained-glass-gleaming temples where Jesus found God’s divine presence or faithfully lived out God’s calling. Most of the time Jesus settles in a place – a pasture, a mount, a well, a marketplace, a small town, the house of some close friends – and is present there among the community, friends and foes and everyone in between.
At my November conference in Denver, a religious scholar from Eastern Mennonite University argued that by being a global religion, Christianity has sometimes neglected its local places. Instead of working in the local ecosystem, churches have sought to be a refuge from the ills of local life, a place of retreat, a place set apart. These churches can be active in mission work around the world but struggle to be present in the lives of folks in their own communities. And this is unfortunate. Because we live in our community all the time.
Advent invites us to find hope in the darkness, expect God to do something new and calls on us to retell the old promises. Practically. Outside the stained-glass walls of our sanctuaries in the lives of folks in our community. So this Advent Season, practice your faith where you are. Be present in the lives of your friends and your neighbors. Provide comfort and hope to someone grieving. Give unexpectedly to someone in need or a local cause. And talk about the promises that yes, God is still with us, always with us.
May God bless you and keep you this Advent and Christmas Season,