By Neal Michell
I have a confession to make: I have already put up our Christmas tree… and our outdoor lights… and I was singing Christmas carols while doing so. In fact, they were all put up before the First Sunday of Advent.
I was formed to keep Advent traditionally with no Christmas carols and no Christmas tree or other decorations until Christmas Eve. Even before I was a priest, even before I had any inkling that I would become one, I celebrated Advent in the traditional way. I’d take off at noon from the law office on Christmas Eve and buy a tree on the way home. Those Christmas Eve trees were usually pretty pitiful. They were the kinds of trees that Charlie Brown would have bought.
These days I usually put up our Christmas tree and decorations on Thanksgiving weekend (weather permitting). And I sing Christmas carols joyfully while doing so. And, yes, we keep our Christmas tree and decorations up until January 6. Why have I let Christmas encroach on my previously pure celebration of Advent? Especially, why did I, as an Episcopal priest, change?
Please don’t misunderstand me. I love Advent with all its powerful messages, along with the Advent hymns, the evocative longing for the coming of Jesus, and the lighting of the Advent wreath.
This year’s Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent begins in darkness: “Jesus said, ‘In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light’” (Mark 13:24, NRSV). These are difficult and challenging times. Dark times. Especially 2020.
The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent articulates this reality of our being surrounded by darkness and the even greater reality that God’s light shines in our darkness:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
This collect wants us to understand that we live surrounded by darkness, and we live between two realities: there was a coming, and there will be a coming. The Messiah has already come, but we long for the fullness of his kingdom that will come when he comes again. Until then, until Jesus returns, there will always be dark days.
This Collect also tells us that as Christians we do not need to be overwhelmed by the darkness around us, and that our faithful response, our rightful response, is “to put on the armor of light.” Although we are surround by darkness, we need not succumb to that darkness because “[T]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5, ESV).
The message of Advent, indeed, of the whole Church year, is that God breaks through the darkness with the coming of Jesus as the light of the world. Through the Advent candle we act out our Christian hope: God’s light shining in the darkness. The one candle is lit, then another, and another, and another, until finally the Christ candle is lit, and we recall the greater reality of God’s victory over the darkness.
So, in the midst of the darkness we celebrate the light that overcomes that darkness — even though the darkness is still surrounding us.
What caused me to change my approach to Advent?
Years ago, my wife and I were shopping for Christmas presents at a mall. She had a bit more shopping to do, so I sat down while she finished her shopping. As I sat there, watching people, enjoying the lights, and hearing the people singing and humming Christmas music, with all the lights and decorations, I also listened to the music that was being piped in throughout the mall. I heard “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “We Three Kings,” and “Joy to the World.”
But I was not in a Christmas mood; I was in more of an Advent mood, a dark mood. “Ugh,” I thought, “these people don’t have a clue — not an Advent song among them.” As I was stewing in my self-righteous Anglican purity, a thought came to me: “Michell, here you are in this huge shopping mall, with lights all around, people all around you happily humming and singing ‘Joy to the World’ and celebrating the birth of Christ, and here you are, complaining about it because they’re not playing the songs you think they ought to sing.” I had become a religious Ebenezer Scrooge.
And I changed. I repented there in that shopping mall.
I asked God to forgive me of my self-righteousness, and I told him I would always be joyful in Advent. I would sing Christmas carols in Advent because the Messiah has already come and continue singing them through the twelve days of Christmas, and would have our Christmas decorations up at the same time. While being cognizant of the darkness around me, I would let God’s light shine through my darkness.
In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus cautions his followers not to practice our righteousness before others to be noticed by them. Instead, the more faithful response that honors him is that when we fast, we should not look gloomy; rather, we should anoint our head and wash our face (Matt. 6:16-18).
In our home, we still celebrate Advent with the daily lighting of the Advent wreath around our dinner table, sing an Advent song, read a reading from the Daily Office, and read an Advent devotion. But we also have all our decorations up, we will listen to Christmas carols as well, and I do say to people “Merry Christmas” without flinching.
However, we still keep our tree and outdoor Christmas lights up until Epiphany. That is our testimony to our neighbors of our celebration of Advent and Christmas in its normative and traditional way.
I realize not everyone will have the grace that I have discovered. Some reading this essay will rightly discern that they need to keep Advent in the traditional way.
The point of all this is: darkness is all around us, but as Christians there need not be darkness within us. During this Advent season, however you do it, “put on the armor of light” because “[t]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Your light may, in fact, touch someone else’s darkness.
The Very Rev. Dr. Neal Michell was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Garland. Until recently, he was prebendary in the Diocese of Dallas and dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. He currently serves as Visiting Professor for Pastoral Ministry at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.