It’s Advent once again and time for our annual reminder that we are a countercultural community in the world around us. We may know that all year round, but at no other time do the values of the dominant culture so obviously clash with our own. The secular world has stolen our sacred observance of the Word made flesh and turned it into a time that is the antithesis of Christ… a time filled with busy-ness, consumerism and superficial sentiment.
I think of the Easter story where a bewildered Mary Magdalene is sobbing in the garden outside the tomb, telling a man she supposed to be the gardener, “Sir, they’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they put him!” We know that the gardener was none other than Jesus himself, so there is great irony in Mary’s lament. But, imagine Mary Magdalene transported in time to Concord Mills during the month of December. In this context, her words would ring oh so true, “Sir, they’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they put him!”
Often we hear people grumbling over the fact that we don’t sing Christmas hymns during the season of Advent. As a Lutheran pastor I sometimes feel as if parishioners consider me the enforcer of an arbitrary rule that makes no sense to them, and I have become like the “Grinch who stole Christmas.” They ask, “Why can’t we sing Christmas songs when they’re being sung all around us?” But this is precisely why we don’t sing them in the church… because we follow a different calendar than the world around us. And we decide how we will celebrate the incarnation, not those who run retail stores.
I suggest that we sing our Advent hymns with gusto, voicing them to the very world that would convince us of their futility. We don’t sing these hymns because the pastors insist we must; we sing them because we are a community of faith that is bound together by the gospel and we will not be intimidated into following the world’s agenda. Every time we sing an Advent hymn it defines us; we are declaring who we are and who we are not. Singing Advent hymns is in fact an extreme act of Christian defiance! We are not like the rest of the world. We will prepare for the birth of Christ in our own way. We will proclaim a message that stands in direct opposition to the perversion of Christ’s life and teachings that the popular culture would have us believe. So there!
Thank God for this time of the year when we are called upon to take a stand by singing songs that the dominant culture doesn’t appreciate. Our own discomfort with Advent songs reminds us of our calling to embody an alternative community of faith in a world that doesn’t get it. Ironically, the world that we would resist with our songs is the very world that needs to hear those songs the most. And so it’s not just in stubborn defiance that we sing our Advent songs, but it is in bold witness to the love of God for the world. The same world that would obliterate the message of the gospel with this holiday that bears Christ’s name is, after all, the world that Christ came to save. It’s with Christ’s love in our hearts that we sing our Advent hymns as if the whole world depended on them. Perhaps it does.