Oh little town of Bethlehem
With your sky so black
May God impart to human heart
The wisdom that we lack
Jack Henderson and Linford Detweiler, performed by Over the Rhine and Jack Henderson
I spent the first 10 years of my life in a church that did not observe Christmas as a religious holiday. Traditional carols like “Joy to the World” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were sung throughout the year, in March and July, but never in December. We had Christmas trees and lights and decorations at home, but at church it was business as usual. My devout grandmother scoffed at anyone who thought Jesus was the reason for the season, because our church taught us that we were to observe His birth, life, and death (Easter was a no-go also) daily in our personal lives, and every week through Holy Communion with fellow believers. So while I grew up making cookies for Santa and turning down corners of the Sears catalog in anticipation of Christmas morning, I really had no idea what Advent even was until I was an adult.
And by adult I mean “somewhere in my late 30s.” Because even though I started attending a church that did recognize December as a season devoted to the birth of Jesus, I didn’t get it in my heart, in my bones. It was rote, methodical, nearly as commercialized as the Santa scene, and rife with expectations: you will go to church on Christmas Eve, you will invite your friends to church, you will wear your “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” pin, you will put some money in the red kettle, and even more in the collection plate, and you will donate your ratty coats and worn out shoes to the poor, because we must spread the Light of the World even more enthusiastically than usual, right after our Black Friday shopping is done. I went along with all of this, just like I had not gone along with it as a kid, because I didn’t see an alternative that made more sense to me. I loved my church people, the songs and the Christmas cantatas and the candlelight rendering of “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, the yearly reading of the nativity story. It was fun and predictable– and it all pretty much meant zilch to me. It was a time of celebration in the church, designed for church people by other church people, and even though I had heard that passage from Luke nearly enough times to know it by heart, it simply did not resonate with me.
Christian churches throw around the phrase “relationship with Jesus” like everyone knows exactly what it means. It is almost off-putting, exclusionary. It ranks up there with words and phrases like “the word,” “born again,” “testimony,” and “witness.” Christians know what these buzzwords mean because they learn them in church, much like an aerospace engineer can rattle off definitions for “hohlraum” and “sferics receiver.” Knowing those words might help you follow a conversation between Sheldon and Wolowitz, but you’re not going to be equipped to participate in a shuttle launch. Same with Christian vocabulary (and dare I say scripture): you can memorize All The Words, but until you know what they feel like, until you have lived them, until they have changed you in some way deep down in your soul, you will never truly understand what you are saying. And then when you do, when you come face to face with some experience that drives the meaning of these God-words into your life like arrows in a target, you no longer feel the need to call them by their Sunday School names. They become part of you, bigger than language. They become the way you interact with people, the way you move through life. This is as likely to happen to you in a laundromat or a bar as it is to happen to you inside a church building.
This is what I finally came to understand about Advent: it has nothing to do with church. It has very little to do with lighting candles and reading scripture, and even less to do with the month of December (finally, a point of spirituality my late grandmother and I would agree on!). Advent is all about acknowledging darkness. In the church experience of my youth and early adulthood, the darkness was (allegedly) outside, and we were all safely protected from it within the walls of our brightly lit memory verses and exclusive labels. We were all living it up in the light. So was every other Christian denomination in the known world. You could read for a solid week and never come to the end of all the ways every branch of Christianity says you must behave in order to be a light-dweller. Compliance across the board is damn impossible, but everyone is right. Right? Here’s a thought: what if everyone is wrong? What if it’s really as simple as this: it is dark, and you need light. Put down your chalices, take off your robes, throw away the good deed checklists and the literature you keep on hand to slide under windshield wipers and into mailboxes (or realistically speaking, into the unsuspecting inboxes, comments sections, and Twitter feeds of anyone who disagrees with you). Stop with the scare tactics and the elite language, and cease and desist your attack on every single branch of religion and not-religion that does not fit into your perfect story. I don’t care if you are a seasoned pastor or an 11-year old child–this is the foundation, the beginning and the end: there is so much darkness, and you need light.
Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness. -Isaiah 8:22