"On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me." Tony Bennett's voice wove its subtle magic throughout the shopping mall. "How appropriate," I thought, as I watched the shoppers scurry from store to s tore. The advertisements promised "just the right gifts at just the right price," allowing us to "give like Santa and save like Scrooge."
The ancient Western church devised a rhythmic cycle for the celebration of Christ's incarnation. At the center was Advent, the 20-plus days beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. By fasting and abstaining from public festivities, Christians were to prepare for the holy day by being drawn into the sense of longing for Messiah's coming felt by generations of God's faithful people.
This heightened sense of anticipation would, in turn, give way to overwhelming joy and festive celebration when Christmas Day finally came. Only then followed the 12 days of Christmas, climaxing on January 6 with Epiphany, the commemoration of the visit of the Magi.
As members of the fast-food generation, we have become so eager to get to Christmas that we bypass Advent. Whereas our forebears enjoined fasting and reflection, we try to enjoy days filled with more Christmas festivities than we can endure. Christmas has displaced Advent on our calendars.
But our bypassing of Advent runs deeper—altering our attitude to the story of Christ's birth. We know how the story ends. Knowing the end of the story so well, we want to rush through the long and tortuous details of how God prepared a people—of how "God sent his Son … when the time had fully come" (Gal. 4:4). Rather than entering into the sense of expectation lying at the foundation of the narrative of Christ's entrance into the human plotline, we read only the story's glorious climax. Rather than savoring the plaintive mood of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," we immediately want to hear a robust version of "Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come." In short, we have our Christmas early and create a drive-through Christmas.
The irony of our situation is that in our rush toward Christmas, we end up truncating the celebration. Once December 25 is past, so is the holiday. Stretching the 12 days of Christmas until January 6 seems entirely out of place. In fact, we have eliminated the need to do so by moving the adoration of the Magi to our early Christmas: we efficiently (and ahistorically) place the wise men at the manger next to the shepherds. We cannot even stretch Christmas to December 26, for Boxing Day entices us to take our unwanted, reboxed gifts back to the stores or to buy boxes of the sale goods that draw us out in droves for one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
So we have our 12-plus days of Christmas, just like the song says. But in our impatience born from the lure of instant gratification, we have transposed them. Christmas now precedes December 25. This may allow us to avoid the stressful waiting, the longing expectation and the forlorn cry of our forebears. But it also precludes us from sharing the exuberant joy of that first Christmas, for we cannot truly sing "Joy to the World" unless we have thoroughly rehearsed "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."
Stanley Grenz is professor of theology and ethics at Carey Hall/Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia.
Image by Mary Chambers.
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