Savoring the Anticipation

Christmas begins earlier every year. At some of the bigger retail stores (you know who you are, Wal-Mart), wreaths and garlands burst onto the shelves before the Halloween clearance racks are emptied. To be sure, such stores take a good deal of online ribbing for this; however, once the Thanksgiving table is cleared, very few people still complain about premature Christmas preparations. Before we’ve flipped our calendars to December, Christmas is everywhere and the whole Western world seems to join in a breathless sprint to the 25th.

I love Christmas, and I know I’m not alone in this…so I get it. The excitement of the season, perpetuated by ubiquitous music, lights, and evergreens, is contagious. And yet, when January 2nd rolls around, and everybody collapses beyond the imagined finish line, almost as if to say, “Whew, Jesus is born, now we can finally toss the tree and stow the manger scene and move on with our lives” — I can’t help thinking we’ve gotten it wrong somewhere.

Of course, for those who treat Christmas as a secular holiday, there’s no pressing reason not to embrace the frenzy and no reason to second-guess the exhaustion that follows the month of December. However, when those of us who cherish the Incarnation as the central focus of the season – indeed, its sine qua non – are completely fed up with Christmas by the 26th, we ought to take a few steps back and consider whether we have unwittingly let popular culture dictate our own approach to the season.

For many Protestant congregations, the church calendar is a thing of the past. Aside from Christmas Day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, the seasons and days that comprised the church year for centuries have vanished from consciousness. Seasons such as Advent and Lent have fallen out of favor, perhaps because they smack of ritualism and focus on guilt instead of grace.

While I see why these things could become a concern, I find it much more concerning that a worldly, consumer-driven approach to Christmas has rushed in to replace Advent, and has permeated the church’s approach to the season. The Bible says quite a bit about self-examination and humbling oneself before God, and Advent is a special time for disciplining oneself in those areas. When we jump right into Christmas without reflecting on why we need a Messiah; without recalling the expectant years of prophesying His coming; without envisioning the anticipation that preceded Jesus’ arrival in a tiny stable in Bethlehem…we fill our time with a month-long glut of celebrations that leaves us tired of the whole thing by the time the first present is opened.

Most of us, of course, would have to hide under a rock all month if we decided to fully observe Advent by shunning every overtly Christmas-y activity until December 24th. There’s simply no getting around the fact that most Christmas festivities are over by the New Year (what’s Epiphany?), and it’s fun to immerse ourselves in the beauty of the season – while we have the chance. But it would behoove us to slow down wherever we can – not just because our hectic lives are making us crazy, but because, if we’ve made time to meditate on the mystery of Advent, we will be better prepared to greet Christmas Day with a sense of joyous anticipation instead of a feeling of relief that it’s almost over. As one author put it:

Nothing we can do earns us the gift of Christmas, any more than Lent earns us Easter. But a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives.

Like it or not, we all observe rituals — if not, Evangelical churches would have dispensed with Christmas altogether. So whether we choose to light a candle each week, read regularly from the Old Testament, or simply take more time throughout the month to pause and reflect on our great need for a Savior, we can prepare our hearts to rejoice anew at the wondrous mystery of Christ’s birth…not only on Christmas Day, but for many days after.

 

 

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How to be a Real Person

Thanks to Benjamin Franklin, we all know that death and taxes comprise the two major certainties of life. While we may disagree on the “taxes” part, and maybe propose our own ideas about what parts of life are similarly inevitable, I’m confident that Mr. Franklin would add a third item if he were around today: namely, the certainty that, whenever anybody posts a video or article on the Internet expressing concern about our widespread addiction to technology, the comment section will feature at least one remark of this nature:

“how ironic that u posted this on the internet lol kinda hypocritical smh”

It’s like they can’t help it. “In order to have an opinion about the Internet, you must either MARRY A SMARTPHONE or BECOME AMISH!” I rarely embrace the all-or-nothing mentality, so maybe I’m just wishy-washy. Still, I have to laugh when I see these comments, because…really?

If ever I read or watch something on the Internet condemning any and all use of technology, denouncing it as proof that aliens have possessed our brains in order to usher in the Apocalypse, then I will acknowledge that using the Internet to spread the news is a tad inconsistent. However, for the largely rational messages I encounter, I will simply consider what has been said, evaluate my own use of technology as it compares with what the article or video describes, and assume that the author is not a microchip-addicted hypocrite with a big ol’ smartphone-shaped log in his eye.

You may have guessed – either from previous blog posts, or from knowing me personally – that I’m not a huge fan of technology myself. Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien (among others) have convinced me that I would fit perfectly into Victorian England or, better yet, Middle-Earth. Because I don’t have all of time and space at my disposal, though, and this is where God has put me, here I am…blogging. And using email and Facebook.  Because, ultimately, technology is a tool, and we are responsible for how we use it.

Much as we like to blame technology for making us rude and impatient, the truth is that people have always been capable of rudeness and impatience. Mr. Palmer, one of my favorite characters in Sense and Sensibility, endures social gatherings by hiding behind a newspaper and making sarcastic comments when common decency forces him to break his silence. Were he living in the 21st century, he would undoubtedly find refuge behind a smartphone instead of a newspaper. The difference, of course, would be that several others present would be buried in their smartphones as well…because technology’s biggest drawback is that it makes being rude and disconnected much, much easier than it was 200 years ago.

Social media, in particular, facilitates behavior that has existed for a long time but has always been, at least in my mind, inconsiderate. I remember noticing, starting around junior high (surprise, surprise), that various people would talk to me in certain settings but ignore my existence in others. Or that I could have an in-depth conversation with somebody one day, feel as if we’d really connected, and then find that, the next time we crossed paths, I merited nothing more than a brief “hello.”

What?!?

Facebook – and, I can only presume, its competitors – allows for this sort of thing to seem normal and acceptable even among adults. “Friend” somebody, then maintain zero contact with him from that moment on. Or maybe interact with a person on Facebook, “like” a few photos (sorry, I mean pics), but walk right past her next time you see each other. It’s bizarre, and it’s one reason I have quite a few friends who avoid social media entirely. It’s why a number of people have published articles and videos such as those I described earlier, urging viewers to shut down their computers, go out, and spend time with real people.

…Which is a shame, because aren’t your “Facebook friends” real people? Mine are – or were, last I checked (unless the aliens really are taking over). I have friends on Facebook that I haven’t seen for ages, and that – sadly enough – I might still not see for ages more because they have the nerve to live in different states (or even countries!) When I do see them, though, I will be thrilled to give them a big hug, have a face-to-face conversation, and maybe even hang out for a while…after all, that’s why I befriended them in the first place! As for the friends who live nearer, I enjoy the “pics,” the banter, and the occasional philosophical, poetical, and theological discussions, but if I give them no more than a passing glance when we actually meet in person, then I’m doing it wrong.

So I’m not into Facebook-bashing, or guilt-tripping moms and dads for taking their eyes off their precious children for a few minutes now and then so they can enjoy some interaction with other adults. (Even the ladies and gentlemen of the Victorian era spent some time each day keeping up with their correspondence, so it must be okay). What I am into is relating to people the same way in person that you do through the Internet. Showing people that you truly do care about them, and that they’re not just an amusing online distraction when you need a break from laundry, a boring meeting, or an interminable wedding reception. Remembering, in other words, that technology is just a tool; that you are in control of how much you use it; and that people should always, always come first.