I have nothing against mall Santas. Out of uniform, they're among the jolliest people I know. So why can't I stand going to the mall in December? It may be the endless soundtrack of cheesy Christmas carols, the tinseled decorations on steroids, or the forced joy that pervades each level. Obviously the hyper-consumerism is a turn-off but I think ultimately it's the lack of anything having to do with faith. God is nowhere to be found. And "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" bumper stickers in the parking lot aren't helpful.
Which is precisely why I love the season of Advent; it is so incredibly counter-cultural. Not in a tie-dyed, hippie kind of way but as a profound expression of faith in Jesus Christ. Because everywhere else Christmas has already come -- it really started on Black Friday. Or perhaps the day after Halloween (it's hard to tell). Throughout Advent, fake Santas are ho-ho-ho-ing, Christmas lights are flashing, and Rudolph is guiding Santa's sleigh tonight. The "Christmas-Industrial Complex" spins wildly out of control and Advent gets swallowed up by the Yuletide behemoth.
Things at church are different. We watch and wait and prepare. We sing about the "long expected Jesus" and bid the sleepers to "wake." We hear from those wonderful figures of the season, Isaiah and John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. All of whom stand in stark contrast to the "holy" trinity of Frosty, Rudolph, and the Grinch.
Rarely does the church provide such sanctuary from the noise of the prevailing culture. We gather around the ever-growing light of the Advent wreath in hope and anticipation not of what we'll find under the tree but to encounter the fullness of God as revealed in Christ (though I am hoping for a new iPod). The light increases as the number of days until Christmas decreases. And there's a recognition that an Advent calendar is not a tool to count down the number of shopping days until Christmas.
Advent is also the church's season of "nesting." If you've ever lived with a pregnant woman, you know that expectant mothers can go slightly overboard preparing their homes for the arrival of a new baby. When my wife Bryna was eight months pregnant, I remember walking through the hallway and encountering an empty linen closet. She was on the floor along with every sheet, towel, comforter, and pillowcase we owned. The shelves were being sterilized and some kind of "sorting" was involved. I said "never mind" and went to hide in the bedroom.
I'm not sure if Mary did any nesting -- tidying up the stable, sweeping up hay. Scripture doesn't mention much time between the arrival in Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. But nesting is a form of preparation. Advent preparation blends anticipation, excitement, and longing. And it's a wonderful opportunity to spiritually prepare our hearts through prayer and worship.
May this Advent season be for you a time of joyful and fruitful preparation. And on Christmas morning as the wrapping paper on the last gift is torn apart, may you be left not with a feeling of emptiness but of true fulfillment at the birth of our Savior.