December is fast approaching, which means Christians are about to enter one of the most special seasons of the church year.
No, not that one. Christmas can wait. I'm talking about Advent.
Of course, Christmas isn't waiting. It started its arrival just after Halloween and, bolstered by its commercial handlers, burst onto center stage as the doors to your local big box store opened early and eclipsed the Thanksgiving turkey. Because nothing says "being grateful" quite like joining a mob at your local mall in the relentless pursuit of "more."
There's another sign that Christmas is on the way too. That's because, once again, Christians are declaring that there is a "war on Christmas" being waged with every generic "happy holidays" greeting. (I wrote about the false rhetoric of "Keeping Christ in Christmas" last year around this time.) Christmas is ground zero in the "religious freedom" culture war that has replaced any meaningful dialogue about faith in our culture.
So, here are your Christmas choices: celebrate the birth of a child who would later tell us to sell all we own and follow him by buying more stuff. Or, celebrate the birth of a child who would later tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves by telling our neighbors that if they don't give us our preferred holiday greeting then they hate freedom.
I'm feeling the Christmas spirit already.
But maybe it doesn't have to be that way. Now, I'm not naive. I know that Advent, the season that countless generations of Christians observed as a way to prepare spiritually for Christmas, is not going to replace the consumer hype and cultural commentary that have come to define December. No one is going to be replacing Christmas carols with Advent hymns on the radio. You can only sing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" so many times. But, for some of us at least, we're looking for something more.
If December is a journey toward Christmas, you can decide which roads to take and who your traveling companions will be on that trip. Maybe the road you choose will lead you straight through Black Friday sales. Or maybe your traveling companion will be Bill O'Reilly who will spend the trip yelling red-faced at the atheists you pass on the road.
Or maybe your journey will be with others who only want to take the road that leads to a barn behind an inn in Bethlehem and who want more than anything to find a child who taught us a better way.
This Advent I'm remembering the classic themes of the four Sundays of Advent, a tradition passed down by Christians long before they knew what Black Friday or Fox News were: hope, peace, joy and love. And I'm judging my own (and only my own) spiritual preparation for Christ's nativity by how much I'm taking these four themes to heart.
Hope: Do I really believe in the hope Christ is coming to bring? Or am I putting my hope in divisive rhetoric or Black Friday sales?
Peace: Am I proclaiming the good news of the one we Christians are waiting for, the one we call the Prince of Peace? Or am I adding to a world of hatred, anger and mistrust by declaring there is a war on my faith or my favorite holiday?
Joy: Do I try to spread the joy of Christ to others by demanding that they believe as I do? Or do I spread it by working to make the world joyful for all?
And love: Am I more concerned about "keeping Christ in Christmas" by demanding other people honor my own religious tradition? Or am I "keeping Christ in Christmas" by acting like a Christian and loving others the way Christ commanded?
There are a lot of roads to Bethlehem. Some are crowded. Some are angry. Some cost a lot. And some are forgettable.
But then there's the Advent road. There's room for us all, even though we might find that most days it's not particularly crowded. Somedays it might even feel like a forgotten byway, not even on the map. Even still, it's the one I choose.
Come Christmas Eve, the sales will still be raging and the pundits will still be preaching. I can't stop any of that, because in the end I can make decisions for no one's spiritual life except my own. In the end maybe the world around me won't have changed much. But maybe I will have. And that will be enough.
But I sure wouldn't mind some traveling companions for the journey.