Advent is a difficult time. I am officially described as Scrooge around my house because I drag my feet on all the Christmas ‘stuff.’ Then, after December 25, when I want to sing all the carols I am met with an audible ‘sigh’ that says ‘this is over.’

Insert my ‘sigh’ here.

I was hoping that this year there might be more interest in a gradual, spiritual, approach to the blessed event in Bethlehem. Because of all the economic struggles people are facing, because of all the options for going broke coming out of Washington, I thought that the shine might be taken off of crass commercialism. ‘sigh.’

Is it asking too much to ask a congregation to see Advent as a time of preparation? Is it too much to engage in disciplines that turn us toward prayerful exercise, anticipation? It seems like it sometimes.

We have a Crèche in the chancel of our church during Advent. This year I am re-instituting a practice I’ve had where we do not put all the figures in the Crèche right away. During the children’s time we add one or two every week. We start off with the animals; they were there to start with. It is said that this was a stable. Mary and Joseph arrive. Then the shepherds. Then the angel. Finally, at our Christmas Eve service we put the infant into the crèche.

Dealing with the hymnody is even more difficult than the children. Our hymnal contains a sparse collection of Advent hymns. So I have to be creative. Some years we sing various verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” as responses during the penitential part of our worship. Otherwise it is hard to avoid all the rejoicing.

I don’t mean to suggest that Advent is not a time for rejoicing. We do, after all, know the end of the story. But I find it instructive that the end is where our mothers and fathers in the faith decided that the readings should begin. We do not begin with sweetness and light, with cattle lowing and babies cooing. We begin with apocalypse.

Apocalypse is always an uncomfortable guest at any party. But here it is the motivation for the party and to leave it out is, well, shallow. I am as eager for festivities as anyone, but I also wonder “why all the excitement?”

In my hometown we are accustomed to the dark. I went to college in the Upper Peninsula, the western end, right on the end of the time zone, so we really knew about darkness. In northern Michigan the darkness comes quickly in the fall. You get up in the morning in the dark. When you come home from work at night it is dark. You go to bed. You get up. It is dark. We are a people who are accustomed to darkness. This has an effect on you after a while. You don’t come to expect lightness, you expect dark. When the phone rings in the middle of the night you expect the worst. A cough is never just a cough, or even the flu, it is probably some kind of awful respiratory disease. We expect the worst.

It isn’t as bad as it seems, to expect the worst. When it is only the flu, we say, well it’s not pneumonia yet. That it is how it is for us Midwest Germanic folk. After a while you just get to believe that you deserve it. Darkness is your lot. You aren’t jealous of those whose lives are all sweetness and light, because you know that they, too, will have a rough patch down the road. Better to fight the devil you know. That is life. I suspect that Pennsylvania German folk are about the same. You do not have to be one of Garrison Keillor’s Scandinavian Lutherans to know this. We Germanic Reformed folk know this too.

Ironically, this is the setting that allows these lessons we read in Advent to have the greatest effect.

Jan Richardson is a talented artist and commentator who says this on her blog:

“This is the message that the lectionary gives us each year as we enter into Advent. Again and again, we are called to circle back around the apocalypse, to revisit its landscape, to take in its terrain. With its annual return, and its repetitive challenge to us, this passage puts me in mind of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Preparing to save the world yet again, a weary Buffy has this exchange with Giles, her Watcher:

Buffy: How many apocalypses is this now?
Giles: About six, I think.
Buffy: Feels like a hundred.

The season of Advent gives us the apocalypse each year not only so that we might recognize it, should it come, but also—and perhaps especially—that we might enter more mindfully into our present landscape and perceive the signs of how God is working out God’s longing in the world here and now. The root meaning of the word apocalypse, after all, is revelation. And God is, in every time and season, about the work of revealing God’s presence. The one who came to us two millennia ago as Emmanuel, God-with-us, and who spoke of a time when he would come again in fullness, reveals himself even now in our midst, calling us to see all the guises in which he goes about in this world.”

I long for her description of Advent as journey. Even a long journey is meaningful when you know the destination. Even a long journey gets exciting when the destination appears on the horizon. The problem is boredom, apathy, along the way. Another problem is hitching our wagon to whatever appears to make the journey quicker. Quicker is not always better. The darkness reminds us of the coming light, and teaches us to have hope. It teaches us the richness of real worship. It teaches us to pray and to practice our faith.

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