By Andy Lang
When I was growing up, one of my best friends would celebrate Christmas by purchasing the largest Advent calendar she could find, stocked full of the highest quality chocolate she could possibly afford. If it was a good year, and the price was right, this calendar would be more than three feet tall, covered in images of Santa Claus, snowflakes, and Douglas Firs. In her house, it would stand as this great ode to the holidays, slowly being explored day by day, until the final door opened on the 24th, marking the highly anticipated time of gift-opening.
In a recent conversation with her, she admitted that Christmas had always felt a bit strange to her. Having walked away from her Catholic tradition, her family had only remnants of religion in her Christmas celebration. More than anything else, she admitted, Christmas in her family seemed to have turned into a holiday of consumption. Advent, the four weeks leading up to it, had been reduced to the ritual of the Advent calendar, peeling back the little doors and revealing little bits of candy to soothe the soul.
And although I grew up with religion soaking my Christmas experience and didn’t often have an Advent calendar around, I can definitely relate. In my family, Advent was celebrated mainly within the confines of our church community, rarely flowing into our day-to-day lives at home. We were busy continuing the everyday routines of our lives: going to school, going to work, seeing friends, and longing for the potential coming of snow. It was only in the two weeks leading up to Christmas when things would shift, but it had very little to do with Jesus or our spiritual lives: we needed to buy gifts, get the tree up, and decorate the house! In other words, despite my weekly church attendance and never missing the Christmas Eve service, my Advent and Christmas experiences were also primarily defined by purchasing gifts and filling myself with eggnog lattes.
How has Christmas become so centered on buying more and more when the message of the incarnation is that the presence of God is already right here in the midst of our very lives?
Advent as a Season of Invitation
It seems to me we settle for an Advent of Consumption because an Advent of Invitation into this truth simply asks so much of us. Using the four weeks of Advent to explore how Love shows up in the midst of everything would take discipline and sacrifice; it’s countercultural! Taking this time to look inward into our own depths and outward into the reality of our hurting world would require giving up the daily chocolates of the Advent calendar, trusting that the seeming darkness within and around us has hidden within it the fingerprints of the Divine.
I recently sat down with my dad, Rev. Rich Lang, and spent some time talking about his evolving understanding of Advent. As he has gotten older, I’ve witnessed changes in how he approaches this time of year; whereas he once focused on railing against the Empire during the Christmas season (referring to most Christmas sermons as “fluff”), he now speaks of Advent and Christmas as opportunities for us to go on an inward journey. In our conversation, he spoke of cultivating the “contemplative spirit” during this season, accepting the invitation to go down into our own life stories so that we can engage the world more sustainably, allowing spiritual practices to sustain us.
(Note: During this conversation, we refer to Advent as a season of preparation. Knowing that God is already right here, right now, not traveling from some far-off distance, try imagining this as a season of invitation into the present moment, rather than preparation for something in the future.)
(VIDEO) Click the link or watch the video embedded above.
This Advent season, may we accept this invitation into spiritual practice, engaging the month leading up to Christmas with a contemplative spirit of openness, curiosity, and wonder. One way to do this might be to carve five minutes out of your day to pause and notice where God is already present in your life. Or if you’re like me, and even five minutes can be too much sometimes, try to weave this practice of awareness into the doings of your day, looking for the Divine whenever you feel a particularly strong emotion or attachment.
Below are some more practices you might resonate with as we enter the season.
- Daily Devotional Reading: As Pastor Rich mentioned in our conversation, daily devotional reading is one of the oldest spiritual practices of Advent. Take some time each day to read scripture as sacred story. You can follow the Upper Room’s daily devotional readings if you feel you need guidance.
- Nature Walking: For many of us, the presence of the Divine is most readily apparent in the midst of nature. Take a moment this week to go for a walk with no music or distractions; simply watch and listen for God at work. If you would like, I’ve written a short guided walking meditation for you to follow.
- Centering Prayer: This is a form of silent Christian meditation. If you would like guidance in this practice, you may watch this video from Cynthia Bourgeault, one of the leading Centering Prayer teachers in the world. She explains how the practice works and then begins the silent sit around the 19-minute mark.
Andy Lang is a high school teacher in Tacoma, Washington and an alumnus of Richard Rohr’s Living School for Action and Contemplation. He leads workshops on contemplative spirituality and embodied social action. Stay up to date on his current projects and workshops by signing up for his monthly newsletter at www.AndrewGLang.com.