Monday, December 09, 2013

Advent: What are you avoiding this year?

I did a little Christmas-shopping over the weekend. This year, due to spousal unemployment, we're giving very practical gifts: clothing, sheets, and other boring necessities (yawn). Actually, J. grew up getting necessities -- he recalls getting snow tires for Christmas one year. His family was very practical, a point of pride for them.

So I ended up in a long line in Bed, Bath & Beyond, the emporium of all earthly delights (honestly, I could browse there for days!). Ahead of me was a woman who seemed to be bringing home all those earthly delights -- every single one! She had two shopping carts filled with merchandise. Not only does this create a steering problem when you're the mistress of two carts, but it vastly increases checkout time for the humble souls behind you in line.  It also doesn't help when you feel the need to dispute the price of nearly every sale item.

But I digress. I'm not criticizing this woman's shopping strategy -- maybe she has 25 grandchildren to buy gifts for. But I had plenty of time -- plenty of time -- to stand there thinking about Advent, as I listened to "Jingle Bell Rock" (at least twice) on the store's sound system.

What have we done to Advent? Back in the days before electric lighting, before central heating, before antibiotics, before superabundant nutrition for many, Advent may have represented, for Christians, a time of sickness and impending shortages. It is cold in many climates. The harvest would have been gathered in, and you had to hope it would sustain your family through the winter. Daylight diminishes to its smallest daily portion; nature seems dead. Snow comes. Snow probably did not represent a skiing opportunity in the days past, or just a chance for kids to play. And it was a transit problem in the most basic sense.

It's no accident that Christmas comes when it does (many scholars seem to agree that Jesus was really born in the spring, after all). In late December, we are at a low point in the yearly cycle. For the same reason, our ancestors celebrated the Winter Solstice at this time, too, in an attempt to encourage the return of the sun. Things should be starting to look pretty grim in Advent. We certainly need Jesus to come!

But we've filled Advent up with shopping, parties, concerts. I am as guilty as anyone. Samuel Wells, writing in Learning to Dream Again, suggests that we are all generally engaged in "a gigantic displacement activity," as we fill our lives up with knowledge, activities, and stuff. What are we trying to displace? Are we trying to avoid the Big Questions? Disease, scarcity, cold, mortality, dying light? Loss of loved ones? Lack of meaning?

What are you avoiding during Advent?

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