At my house this Advent, we have become unintentional liturgical season purists. Two days before Christmas, and still not one Christmas box hauled up from the basement. No twinkly lights. No wreath on the door. The pots on the front step, long ago emptied of my summer flowers, contain nothing but bare dirt. No seasonal pine-cone-and-evergreen arrangements to greet visitors. No visitors. We have a Christmas tree only because my son-in-law bought us one the other day, on sale for fifteen bucks. But it stands there, dark in the corner, nothing on it or under it.
It’s always tough to do the culturally required festooning in a house run by two academics. All we can think about this time of year is the gigantic pile of grading still to do and all the scholarship we never got around to once the semester thickened. Christmas prep, even in the best years, is a hurried, cram-it-in affair. I hardly ever feel like a cheerful elf, whistling away as I choose thoughtful gifts and hang evergreen swags.
This year, one thing after another prevented even the cram-it-in approach. My father-in-law was in the hospital for a week at the beginning of the month, then at our house for a few days. (Dad is better now, thanks.) For various reasons, we’ve missed several parties. I’ve managed mostly to avoid muzak-intensive environments. We considered not doing presents at all.
Honestly, it’s been a relief to say: eh, forget it.
These accidental austerity measures have allowed me to sink into Advent in a more prophet-in-the-wilderness way. Like fellow Twelvers Jes and Scott, I haven’t rustled up much Christmas cheer this year. Instead, I’ve got my ear tuned to grumpy John the Baptist: Repent! Make way! Cry out! I’m mulling over Mary’s feisty declaration of social disruption and relishing Elizabeth’s defiant blessing. I’m waiting, with them, for mighty deeds of God.
I suppose we’re always waiting, in every generation. Amid the historical ebbs and flows, patterns repeat themselves: corruption, exploitation, foolish destruction and neglect, the powerful crushing the poor. Oceans rise, empires fall. Those Advent texts of judgment and longing seem written for us, right now, today. They always do.
Bare pots of dirt: that’s my preferred symbol this Advent. Bare trees, dead leaves, winter stillness. It occurred to me the other day, stopping and starting in dense holiday traffic, that we could opt out of Christmas completely. Some people do. We could just skip it. With that thought, I felt a momentary lift of freedom—which exposes all the cultural pressure to clutter our lives with Christmas crap as the ridiculous burden it is.
Amid my grumpy apathy, I have been going, as always, to worship. As our little choir and orchestra rehearsed on a Saturday morning for our church’s lessons and carols service, the funeral home guys wheeled an open coffin through the sanctuary into the church living room. A visitation and funeral would take place later that morning. We all turned our heads for a moment to acknowledge the abiding presence of Death, even while we played and sang of the holy night.
Now that I recall that moment, it strikes me: simultaneity. Lament and rejoicing, the promise and the gift. All at once. Why do I imagine that somehow, if we all wait and pray and serve hard enough, then we’ll get past this waiting and every problem will resolve? That’s not how it works. The promised child is born, but for the poor shepherds, even after that wondrous night, circumstances hardly changed. They were, no doubt, still poor and struggling thirty years after hurrying to the manger. After that beautiful morning in the temple, when Simeon declared, “Mine eyes have seen your salvation,” not much changed for Israel immediately. In fact, things got worse: a murderous tyrant, a flight into Egypt.
The world needs a Savior, the Savior is here, the world needs a Savior, the Savior is here. It’s all true at once, a diastole and systole of waiting and praising, longing and gladness. The rhythm is built into the church year, into the waters of baptism, into the bread and wine. We learn to dance with the rhythm not because we always feel it but because it’s always true.
I suppose that’s what ritual is for, at least religious ritual. Consumer rituals endeavor through shine and sparkle to manufacture excitement in order to propel further ritual acts of consumer consumption. Christian rituals are not dependent on feeling. They are about reaffirming what is real.
On the first Sunday of Advent, I stood in the fellowship room of a cathedral church, waiting with two college choirs to participate as a reader in Calvin’s annual lessons and carols service. As we waited, my friend John told me that years ago, when he was still a student, he sat at a concert next to Professor Henrietta Ten Harmsel (now of blessed memory), and the choir sang the same piece that we were about to hear today, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Jesus, the tree of life whose “beauty doth all things excel.” Jesus, the one under whose shadow we might rest when weary from our toil. Jesus, the one in whom all our long-sought pleasures are truly found.
The final stanza evokes our promised union with Christ:
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
it keeps my dying faith alive;
which makes my soul in haste to be
with Jesus Christ the apple tree.
John recalled that after the choir sang, the elder professor grabbed his hand, squeezed it, and whispered, “Now I can die and go to heaven.”
Moments later, I stood in the high-ceilinged narthex with the choirs, and before processing into the sanctuary, they sang this song. Their voices filled the space, swirling and enveloping us with their perfect harmony, their exquisite phrasing. Their last phrase lingered, an unresolved cadence suggesting that while we experience the foretaste, we remain in longing. At that moment, I knew just what Henrietta meant.
So I give up. I will exchange my Advent austerity for the rituals of praise and gladness because the rhythm of ritual, it turns out, is how we manage the waiting. While the long arc of redemption does not resolve according to my timing, I believe that Christ is here, now, like a tree “laden with fruit and always green.”
Today I will put lights on the dark tree and unpack the crèche. We will go to worship on Christmas Eve and sing the old carols. On Christmas Day, I’ll set a fine table and we’ll share a festive meal by candlelight. We’ll even open a few presents, purchased online late this week, between bouts of grading, and in one two-hour, surgical-strike outing. Maybe I’ll even stick a few evergreen boughs in those bare pots. I’ll do it as an act of defiance. God loves to work with things that seem bare and dead and dark. There is light in the darkness. There always is.
Here is a recording of “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” performed by Seraphic Fire. It’s gorgeous perfection, but I tell you, the Calvin choirs’ performance was even more inspiring.