It’s Advent time again; the beginning of the “church year.” We change the paraments to purple (or blue, in some cases), hang the greens, set up the advent wreath with candles, and we engage in the ceremonies of the season leading to the birth of Christ. How do we keep the “been there, done that” jaded cynicism out of the experience? Is it possible to infuse the season of Advent with a true spirit of anticipation and waiting, looking forward with hope to the event that will forever change the course of history? Can we make the biggest deal of all time a big deal one more time?
We do try. Many people love the weeks leading to Christmas Eve, and all the special music and pageantry. But it brings to mind a conversation I had with about sixty 18-30 year-olds at Vanderbilt University about four years ago. We were talking about the significant experiences that occur in church. When one young woman shared how much she loved going to her home church on Christmas Eve, a resounding rebuttal came from about 40 other sources. Opinion was divided, but the vast majority of young people said they stayed away from church at Christmas and Easter because of the contrived phoniness and generic activities they experience. “My church tries to be so sincere and significant that it makes me laugh out loud,” a seminary senior reflected. “I cannot believe how manipulative and insipid church gets at Christmas.” A young man echoed the sentiment, and added, “Everything seems dumbed down at Christmastime. Like we would rather focus on the fairy tale than the most impressive paradigm shift in the history of the world.”
Three subsequent meetings with young people from around the country confirmed the opinions of the group I was with then. “I think we can’t experience Advent fully because our lives are too easy. Hopeless people need hope, lost people need a savior, oppressed people need a liberator — we have it too easy,” remarked one woman. “I’m not sure we would want Jesus to be born today. It would force us to change things we don’t want to change.” The majority of younger people I talked to concur. We determined that we would not accept a savior who was:
- highly educated
- critical of materialism
- born in another country
…the list goes on and on. Most younger people feel that the church today would not want to have much of anything to do with the true incarnation of God come to earth. One young man said, “Forget about crucifying him when he grows up. Middle class Americans would reject anyone who didn’t affirm and confirm their own view of who is acceptable and who isn’t. Liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, Democrats and Republicans — all would find a thousand and one reasons to reject anyone God would send. We love Christmas because we have tamed it and made it innocuous and safe. We would hate a real advent of a real savior calling us to real transformation.”
Do we really want Jesus the Christ to be born in our world once more? Do we want to have our values and life practices turned on their heads? We don’t seem to take much of the gospels seriously to begin with — do we really think God has changed and that it would be easier today than 2000 years ago? Christmas is indeed a blessing, but it also is a responsibility. To receive the Christ is to agree to fundamental and wide-sweeping change — both personal and communal. We will not only think differently, but act differently. We will give more and complain less. We will sacrifice personal comfort for caring and compassion. We will leave home and family safety to venture out to serve strangers in the world. We will remember the true meaning of Christmas, and it will change us.
What are we truly anticipating? Who do we really hope will come? A savior to make us new people, or a cute little baby we can adore and ignore? I don’t agree with every criticism I hear from younger Christians, but I think they’re onto something here. We have watered down Christmas in the church. We gripe that it has been co-opted by pop culture, but we have also done it to ourselves. We need to wake up and realize that Christmas is much more than warm feelings and happy events. Christmas is the real “call to action” of all men and women who want to become disciples through whom God transforms the world.