Why is it that, when it comes to the most sacred season of the year for Christians, we in the churches can point to almost nothing that separates us from the secular society in how we celebrate Christmas? Oh, I’m sure that we take more meaning out of it than our secular or agnostic friends, but we don’t really do anything differently than anybody else in how we celebrate the season. Given the profound and unutterable holiness of celebration of Christ’s birth, how can this be? I am reminded of the old question an evangelical friend of mine used to ask me: if you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? If not, why not? Well, I suggest for many of us the answer lies in the extent to which we have forgotten what it means to stand apart from the world, as St Paul urged us to do (Romans 12.1). In the next few paragraphs, then, I want to consider with you the call of the churches to stand separate from society as a “counter-cultural fellowship,” and, once again, to use the recovery programs as an example of what it might look like.
I have written before in these pages, and often spoken about, the extent to which the fellowships of recovery are underground and counter-cultural—by which I mean that those of us in recovery from addiction have a deep sense, by virtue of our brokenness and membership in a fellowship of brokenness, that we are different from other people. There is of course both good and not-so-good in this feeling: good in that we are bound to one another in love and service, and good in that we perhaps are not so captured as we might otherwise be by some of the unhealthy aspects of modern life in the modern world—secularism, materialism, narcissism; but not-so-good in that this sense of difference sometimes still comes from a persistent shame we carry about our past lives in active addiction. Nonetheless, one of the abiding and positive things about the recovery fellowships is that they have the character and strength to stand apart from society when they need to do so. As just one example, most recovery centers where 12 Step groups meet become like beehives of activity during the holidays: recovery meetings nearly 24/7, hotlines on alert, volunteers standing by, sober parties and events carefully scheduled—all to help any recovering person for whom “the holidays” are a tough time, a time that could lead to relapse. We know who we are and what we are about, and we are not afraid to break from the rest of society when our purposes and principles require it.
Now, most serious Christians would at least say they recognize that we in the churches are often called to stand apart from the secular world, that they get what Paul is talking about in Romans 12. But I suggest that most of those same serious Christians would have trouble pointing to very many ways in which our lives appear fundamentally different from the lives of those around us. I recall Peter’s exhortation (1 Pet 3.16) in which he tells us “always to be ready to give an explanation for the hope that is within you.” This quote makes clear that the early Christians were being asked questions about their lifestyle, about why they lived the way they lived: “why do you sell all you have and live together in a common life and love?” “Why do you people spend so much time looking after the poor and the sick, the imprisoned, the unloved and the despised?” “Why do you refuse to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, like all good Roman citizens do?” And Peter says, “Okay, so be ready to tell them why…”
Now, if you are like me, not often are you asked questions like this—because, to be blunt, you—and I—do not live very differently than those around us do.
Which brings me to the holy days of Advent and Christmas. I can think of no better way and no better time for the churches to live differently than the rest of society than now. For secular society—and for too many Christians—“the Christmas season,” by which I mean “Christmas.com” with all its shiny, showy, seductive materialism, seems to start earlier and earlier each year, in recent years about a week or two before Thanksgiving, and then begins anew in all its madness on “Black Friday”—an apt label for sure. And for a month after that, we Christians just like everyone else run around frantically and often mindlessly, buying bells and baubles and things, singing “Frosty the Snowman” and “White Christmas”—and, oh yeah, “Silent Night,” too—three or four weeks before Christmas Day in the underwear section of some department store, wearing Santa buttons or elf-hats or red and green socks, driving ourselves into the ground to “make it a good Christmas” (interesting phrase, that), and yet, never pausing to ponder and pray; never stopping to sit still in wonderment; never treasuring the waiting that is part of the Advent season. Surely we can do better than this.
Indeed, once upon a time we did do better. Once, not so long ago or far away, Christians celebrated Advent—the holy season of discipline, austerity, and fasting before the great festival of Christmas. And the churches used those four weeks as a time of great anticipation, for sure, but also of great and intentional preparation. It was a time of joy, of course, but a joy very different from the kind of frantic, manic giddiness that these days we see all about us in December. Advent was a season of waiting. And it was as spiritually profound as a time of self-examination and prayer, of renewal and meaning, as is Lent before Easter. And then, after Advent, then and only then, the churches celebrated the Season—not just the day—of Christmas, beginning on December 25 and continuing for Twelve Days, until the Feast of the Epiphany.
Now, of course, some churches still technically keep Advent and Christmas separate. Church bulletins in liturgical churches, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, will show that it is the “Second Sunday in Advent” perhaps, and often even call as “Christmas” the full twelve days from Dec 25-Jan 6. But even in the churches that still observe the traditional church calendar there is often very little teaching or reminding about what Advent is, and why it matters. It is like there is no connection between what we do in church on December Sundays and what happens the rest of the “Christmas season” from Thanksgiving until the end of the day on Dec 25. In this as in so many other ways, we in the churches have just caved in and allowed ourselves to be seduced by secular culture, following along with the rest of society down any empty byway, such that there is nothing distinct about us, no salt and no light to sprinkle in love down on a suffering and dazed world.
About ten years ago, which is about ten years after I began my recovery journey, I began seriously to observe Advent as a separate season of waiting. My friends and family know that even now I don’t do much “christmassing” until very close to Christmas Day. I will enjoy festivals and pageants and concerts, of course, and do some “Christmas” logistics like choosing gifts or writing cards, but most of the time I am a bit more quiet, for I aim to be in a time of self-examination and prayer, sometimes of fasting and spiritual discipline. Now I don’t always do this well, but that is my intention. For I want to be ready for the coming of the Christ-child, and I know I am not fit on my own merit even to kneel at the crèche. And so Advent can be a beautiful and spiritual time for me, as I anticipate Christmas. And then, for me, Christmas begins on Dec 25. I celebrate it for Twelve wonder-filled days. What an amazing thing it is to be walking around with “Lo How a Rose E’re Blooming” in my head, and still “keeping Christmas” on Dec 26, or 29, or Jan 1 or Jan 5. With my family and loved ones, we even often will hold some gifts back on Dec 25, to be given later in the Christmas season, perhaps when things are quieter than on Christmas Day. It is all quite lovely and, I like to think, a bit counter-cultural. And I learned to think this way—how and why am I called to live differently than the society around me—at least as much from the recovery fellowships as from the churches.
Now, I certainly don’t suggest that there is only one way to keep Christmas, even less so that my traditions are unique or special, but during this season of Advent, I would ask my Christian brothers and sisters to look over at my recovering brothers and sisters and observe how those fellowships of recovery are underground, counter-cultural fellowships of brokenness, love and joy—especially the “counter-cultural” piece. We Christians, I suggest, would do well to find ways to live out the call of St. Paul and St. Peter, to wit, that we live so differently than the rest of society—because our faith requires no less—that others will ask us, “why do you live the way that you do?” Just once, I would like to hear someone ask, “so, why do you Christians celebrate Advent? Yeah, what’s up with that?”
A blessed and holy Advent to you.