Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice;
tender to me the promise of his word;
in God my Savior shall my heart rejoice.”
As we enter the season of Advent, this rendering of the Magnificat by Timothy Dudley-Smith will be offered in many places of worship. This is the season of telling, or at least the beginning of the telling. On Sunday, Advent One, we will, with Isaiah, invite God to “tear the heavens and come down” (Is 64:1). Later we will read how the “people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2), and be encouraged to let the law and the prophets, culminating in John the Baptist, enter our consciousness to tell us, “first stable on the left beyond the obvious.” There we will find the source of that great light. God in Jesus, “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14 in The Message.
It is story-telling time. And we do it with glad hearts inspired by the Christmas story. However, I run ahead of myself for I want to do justice to Advent. This year, of course, the month of December contains within itself all four weeks of Advent. That comes at a cost. Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday and so the dilemma is raised—can’t we merge one season’s final Sunday (Advent 4) with the beginning of another (Christmas is Christmas Eve/Day through Christmas I this year)? It really makes it difficult to get the troops to spend that Sunday lunch and afternoon “greening the Church”—swapping the décor. And after all, people can only be expected to come to church once on any given Sunday, can’t they? I have already received these kind of arguments (or justifications) for blending the seasons.
My response is—do not yield to the temptation. Do not short-change the story. Perhaps be even darker on Sunday morning of Advent Four—contemplate deeply on the urgency of our dark times. Let us give voice to the things that are gnawing at us for which there seems little hope. And into that volatility, uncertainty, confusion and ambiguity (or VUCA as Bishop Doyle names it in A Generous Community: Being the Church in a New Missionary Age), let us place in their divinely strategized context Mary and Joseph and the Becoming One with the name that means “saving people from their sins.” So let “the light dawn upon us,” and let its marvelous implication of growing revelation of where our hope lies break around us in incremental power—all the way to the fullness of Light as experienced in the Transfiguration at the last Sunday of Epiphany.
Give yourself over to the liturgical calendar and reclaim this holy time. Adapt your Christmas activities to fit into your spiritual priorities of welcoming the gift of God and honoring that God hears our cries and has pitched the divine tent among us. And let curious people know why you have become counter cultural.
Advent is the beginning of the beginning. Christmas is the beginning itself. Epiphany is the revelation of what has begun. And by Lent we are perhaps so aware of the pure grace of God’s gift of light that we are ready to bring it into our internal darkness and let the process of enlightenment go deeper and more personal; until Holy Week helps us put an end to our old selves and brings us God’s newness of a Risen Life.
I am now way ahead of myself. So, let us return to the present. Advent is a time to grapple with the dark things of our world, yes, even as we are decorating our homes. It is a time to read books that challenge us in their efforts to make sense of our VUCA world, where for many authors there is no expectation of a Divine deliverer. We let the pain of our society get to us even as that same society is wringing every ounce of hope and joy it can from the story we are living as Christian people. We, however, are not oblivious to the joy around us. We see the signs of God’s approaching. (After all, in human terms, God took nine months for God to make a Savior if God was truly to empty self and become one of us). This is a time to listen more intently to the story we recite at every Eucharist, which is probably a strong reason we have become so attached to being Eucharistic communities. And our prayers are invited to carry a certain urgency and expansiveness about them.
Those who have received Christmas cards from my family know that they are not likely to reach you until after Christmas. I confess that I aim for Epiphany. Perhaps that is the right trajectory. If we want to reclaim Advent, we have to extend out our Christmas to its traditional twelve days culminating in Epiphany. We can still buy presents ahead of time. (Again, Mary carried Jesus to term, and had her outbursts of joy as expressed in the Magnificat). And we make our preparations that bring increasing light into the darkness. Yet our highest energy for launching festivities, card sending and for reconnecting with friends and honoring them with gifts would come from Christmas Eve/Day and extend into Christmas week and through the New Year to Epiphany.
What if we paced ourselves this way? Who else does something similar to that? Of course, the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah—based on a very different narrative and covering eight days—but perhaps the one the early disciples would have understood better than what we do now. The fruit never falls far from the tree.
In the peace and love of Christ,
The Rt. Rev Alan Scarfe
Bishop of Iowa
 “Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!” Words by Timothy Dudley-Smith, The Hymnal 1982, #437,438