It’s hard to avoid the presence of Christmas these days. With just over a week to go, Christmas music wafts over store aisles crammed with potential Christmas gifts. On sidewalks, charities solicit Christmas donations. Christmas decorations hang on lampposts; Christmas cards arrive in the mail; Christmas decorations adorn our homes.
Our society seems, hopefully, to have abandoned the notion that we can celebrate Christmas without mentioning Christmas. Granted, some organizations still play it safe with “Happy Holidays,” but most places seem to acknowledge that the Christmas season is, in fact, about Christmas—a celebration of the birth of a child 20 centuries ago.
But while the secular world embraces Christmas, Christian churches take a more restrained stand.
So the four weeks before Christmas are labelled the Season of Advent. Advent invites us to prepare ourselves for the birth, and re-birth, of the infant who has influenced the world more than any other person.
Advent asks us, in a sense, to be surrogate parents, anticipating the arrival of a first child. All parents know that feeling—the sense that everything is on hold, suspended, waiting for the moment that will change our lives forever. We may have additional children, but there will never again be a first child.
In my religious tradition, the four Sundays of Advent focus on Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.
During the first week of Advent, a contemplative service asked us to consider two questions:
First, “What hopes do I have that are tied to specific outcomes?”
Am I hoping for a promotion, perhaps? A new car? A special gift?
Whatever it is, that’s an outcome. Once it has happened, hoping is unnecessary.
And so the second question: “When do I experience hope that isn’t tied to an outcome?”
That’s harder. It asks if hope can become a way of life. Instead of hoping for anything specific, you live in hope. And with hope. You live hopefully. Even when things go wrong, when your comfortable world comes crashing down around you, you still radiate hope.
I wonder if, for most of us, Christmas is an outcome. We may look forward to it; we may dread it. Our hopes may come true. Or they may not.
But it will happen, regardless. And then we can get on with life. Which has no specific outcome. None of us know will happen to us next year. None of us knew how our lives would unfold, after birth. The kind of family we’d belong to. The kind of work we’d do. How long we’ll live. Whether we’ll live with peace, or war.
Given those uncertainties, it’s hard to attach hope, peace, joy and love to specific outcomes.
A ceasefire may be an outcome; peace has to be ongoing. You can’t schedule joy and love, so they’re not outcomes either. You can only welcome those experiences when, and if, they happen.
The birth that concludes the season of Advent is not an outcome, but a beginning. We celebrate not just the birth of Jesus, but our own new birth.
We begin life anew—living hopefully, peacefully, joyfully, compassionately. If Advent makes us surrogate parents, we are surrogate parents to our own future.