We have come to this marvelous season called Advent. Here in the church, the signs of Advent are unmistakable. The liturgical color is a rich purple, the flower arrangements are more subdued, we began with the Decalogue and a prayer of confession, the hymns and other music speak about expectantly awaiting the coming of Christ, and, of course, the Advent wreath is in place with only one candle lighted on this first Sunday.
Advent is a first cousin of Lent; it's penitential but not as penitential as Lent. Unlike Lent, it has no prescribed fast days, but abstinence is encouraged, especially on the Fridays of Advent. It follows the ancient custom of providing the Church with a season of penitence before the celebration of a great feast, in this case, the Feast of Christmas.
The biggest difference between Advent and Lent, however, is that Lent is not controversial, but Advent is. And it all has to do with how Christmas is celebrated. In our culture, we are now fully in the Christmas season. Shops and malls, neighborhoods, many homes, even of Christians, are decked out with Christmas trees, beautiful lights, and all other kinds of decorations. Christmas programming and advertising are ubiquitous on the television and radio. Such will be the case through the 25th of December, and then all of it will disappear and Christmas music will be heard no more until next year.
The only place you currently don't see Christmas decorations and hear Christmas carols playing in the background is the Church. If you weren't accustomed to the tradition of Advent and came into the church for worship on any Sunday of the season, you might even be irritated that this is the one place where the birth of Christ is not being observed! You might even be a little indignant! "What kind of a church is this?!" you might exclaim. Even some Episcopalians think that the penitential emphasis of Advent is inappropriate and they refer to this traditional understanding as Sadvent, whereas they would observe Gladvent!
The fact of the matter is that the Church is obviously not going to change the culture in which we live so that everybody observes Advent, and Christmas begins on the 25th of December and ends on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January.
Likewise, the culture is not going to change how the Church observes Advent. And we are a part of the Church as well as a part of the culture, so during this period before the 25th of December we Episcopalians lead a kind of split-personality, schizophrenic life.
And I think that's probably the best we can do. Yes, if we tried hard enough, we really could decide that we’re not going to participate in any Christmas activities between now and the 25th of December. We could choose not to accept any party invitations and we could refuse to give gifts or accept gifts until the appointed time. When people wish us a Merry Christmas during Advent we could give them a disapproving look and wish them a blessed Advent.
Another way of dealing with the incongruity of this time of year is simply to accept the fact that worship in the Church emphasizes something entirely different from what's going on elsewhere and that we just forget about the meaning of the Advent season in the rest of our lives.
I don't recommend either of these approaches during the season of Advent. The better choice is truly to be schizophrenic about the season! We can engage in what the culture does at this time of year, but also incorporate the things of Advent into our daily lives. Advent devotionals at meal times are a wonderful way to do that, using an Advent wreath, which is also a visible sign of the season.
Heed St. Paul's warning, incorporated into today’s Collect, "to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light." Think about making a sacramental confession, or at least take time to confess your sins in the privacy of your own home. What works of darkness are still a part of your life? Confess those works of darkness, ask for God's forgiveness, and replace them with the things of faith. This Advent write a letter or send a card to someone who is lonely; incorporate more prayer into the midst of your day, not long periods of prayer but short prayers of thanksgiving, calling to mind that Jesus is present in your life and you in his.
Finally, when Christmas really does come, keep it for a whole 12 days. Make your family celebration of the Christmas season truly a joyful proclamation of the incarnation.
Do you believe Jesus is coming today? He may! He tells us, “Watch, therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning---lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” Enter into the mystery of Advent, and you and I will be ready when he comes.