It’s not easy being blue

Posted by brianmaas in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

I suspect we long ago passed the one millionth sermon/bulletin/newsletter/blog by a pastor about it not being Christmas until December 25, so it hardly bears mentioning again.

Except that it matters.

I’m no humbug. I love Christmas, and I still manage to experience the little thrills of a favorite carol over the radio, setting up the tree, and trying to surprise a loved one with a gift. And I know I’m not going to change the culture. But I can–WE can–offer an alternative to it.

I’ve known congregations (very few of them Lutheran, thankfully) that start celebrating Christmas right around Thanksgiving (even one that decided it still should have Advent, somehow, so celebrated it in November). But let’s be honest–we’ll never out-Christmas the malls. They’ve got all the exciting characters–Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, Grinch, Ralphie (“you’ll shoot your eye out!”) and more. All we have is a homeless couple putting their newborn in a critter’s feedbox. And angels and shepherds, but they aren’t around long.

So what if we put forth what we do have going for us–preparation, anticipation, longing, restraint, and peace. For the world around us, the colors of the season are red and green, stoplight colors that perfectly express the hectic stop-and-go craziness that marks so much of these weeks. But within the church, the color is blue–the hue of the sky just before dawn. It’s the color into which people sitting in darkness stare to catch a glimpse of the coming light. The church is, or at least can be, a place where people can come to escape the frenzy and experience the nearly-lost art of waiting, the gift of silence, and the optic relief of staring not at millions of LED bulbs, but one more candle’s flame a week.

I know there are people looking for a little dose of religion this time of year–a live nativity, a Christmas cantata, candlelight and Silent Night. But what of the people dazed and crazed by the excesses of the season? Will we dare to be faithful enough to offer them an alternative, to show them a place where less truly is more? Where we hear God’s call to prepare not our houses and stores but our hearts and lives for the simply incredible good news that God so cares for this mixed-up world–even the tackiest, gaudiest, over-seasoned parts of it–that nothing short of entering into it and sharing the wonder of human experience would do to express it?

By almost all measures, Advent is simply weird–unusual, different, out of the ordinary. Which is exactly why we need it.

Or maybe I’m just an old humbug after all.

What do you think?

10 Responses to It’s not easy being blue

  1. Ted Carnahan says:

    To begin celebrating Christmas right after Thanksgiving would be terribly monotonous – This Sunday: Christmas! Next Sunday: More Christmas! And the Sunday after that, guess what?! MORE CHRISTMAS!

  2. Casey Lieneman says:

    Very well written point for the Advent season. Yet, I think the risk we run though is that 99% of Americans move past Christmas on December 26. As churches celebrate Christmas 1 on December 30th most people’s minds will already be on their New Year’s Resolutions.

    How much of an opportunity do we miss by only using such an important time in society (post Thanksgiving until Christmas Day) if we only celebrate and get excited about Christmas on Christmas Eve? And what does it say when Christmas is being promoted and celebrate everywhere but inside the Church?

    I have the mindset that Christmas is arguably the biggest time of the year to get people really excited and fired up about their faith. Christmas music, hymns, lights, decorations, carols, etc. is something everyone looks forward to. I know I do!

    We want people to get patience, waiting, and restraint from Advent but I think often we miss an opportunity when we overdo it. I know that probably sounds like blasphemy coming from a pastor but we need to understand our culture, people, and what works to bring Christ to people during the Christmas season.

    • brianmaas says:

      Casey: I believe you’re right to look for ways to harness the energy in the air to renew people’s faith and extend invitation. But I’m not sure that what our culture celebrates as Christmas is what the Church celebrates as the Incarnation of Christ. We are called to be different, even when that means waiting for cherished traditions. Though it takes time, energy, patience, creativity and a lot of education, I can tell you from firsthand experience that congregations can learn to embrace Advent themes and traditions as deeply as they do their Christmas traditions. “Anticipation” is all over the place; that energy can be harnessed into weekly worship and daily devotional practices. Simple example–using an Advent log with a candle for every DAY of Advent instead of every week; much easier for kids (and adults!) to visualize progress and build helpful anticipation. Coupled with daily devotions that involve a Bible story and the placing of a related ornament on the tree, anticipation has been enriched while the “Christmas” activity of decorating has been incorporated. Additionally, it’s a fun time to be creative–there are some solid offertories, graduals and the like that use seasonally appropriate words with Christmas tunes (it’s not hard to write your own, if done with care)–another marriage that nods to cultural anticipation while preserving Advent’s distinctive themes. And a midweek gentle Evening Prayer service coupled with soup and fellowship makes a welcome break for a lot of people in the midst of frenzy.
      You’re creative and energetic–you’ll come up with your own variations. But my hope is that your creativity will lead to new ways for Advent to continue to be a rich preparation for celebrating the Incarnation.
      Blessings!

      • Casey Lieneman says:

        Very well said. Thank you for this blog. I have enjoyed reading it. A blessed and happy Advent and Christmas season to you! It was great having you up for a cluster gathering this Tuesday.

  3. Chuck Bentjen says:

    But . . . advent music . . . I mean c’mon . . .

  4. Lisa Kramme says:

    Your blog post caused me to think about the last time I purposely waited and watched for the sun to rise. It was the morning after my high school graduation, and a classmate and I vowed to stay up until sunrise. When we thought it was about time, we drove into the country to get a better view. There we watched and waited…and then watched and waited more. It took so long for the sun to actually breach the horizon that we drove home before it happened. Kind of anti-climactic, don’t you think? After all, it was the morning after our graduation. My friend dropped me off at home, and I knocked on the door to my mom and dad’s room to tell them I was back. Mom was there, but Dad wasn’t. When I asked where he was, Mom said he’d gone to the hospital during the night with chest pains. That marked a new time of waiting.

    In our society, so many things we want that seem good can be obtained quickly. We can choose to get a decent lunch “freaky fast” and communicate with friends across the block or around the world in an instant, but so much that we “have to” wait for seems negative. We wait for a diagnosis, we wonder when our child will call to visit, or we wait for a job offer after being laid off. We can pay for overnight shipping for a last-minute gift and track the package to know what time it will arrive at our door, but when we wait with a loved-one who is dying, there is no timetable related to when his or her last breath will be.

    Of course waiting can be positive, too, like waiting for a baby to be born or friends to arrive for a party, but many times it seems like what I’m waiting on or what people I care about are waiting for is not always seen in the most positive light.

    How do we talk about waiting, then, as Church? How do we encourage people that waiting time in Advent is good and something that can deepen and enrich our lives? Or is it enough to simply recognize that waiting is something that God does with us? Is it enough to share with one another in the uncertainty of waiting that God-with-us is both the reason for Advent and the comfort when the wait is hard?

    • brianmaas says:

      Insightful reflection, Lisa–thanks. I think you’re right in noting that Church remains a place where we call people to willingly endure things the world around us promises we can do without–waiting, lamenting, confessing, truth-telling. The question that’s been raised for so long–How can we compete with what the world has to offer?–is the wrong question. We’re not competing–the Church will lose every competition it enters. We’re inviting to and telling the story of an alternative; a fuller, more meaningful life. That can’t happen without waiting (and lamenting, confessing, etc.). But when it does happen, all the other aspects of life are richer. And life stretches, now and forever, beyond the simple bounds of space and time.
      I don’t know how to get people more interested in Advent waiting, or how to make it more appealing. But I don’t think that’s what we’re asked to do. We are simply to wait ourselves and continually invite others into it. I really like your idea of re-framing the whole matter. In the end, it’s not our waiting for God that’s important or inspiring. It’s God’s waiting for us that is truly good news.

  5. Steven Peeler says:

    Bishop Maas, thanks for the meaningful reflections on Advent and Christmas. Here at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, we began Advent with a lay-lead ingathering for and journey up to the Pine Ridge Reservation to deliver our contributions to the ELCA ministry there. It’s got me thinking about John the baptizer’s proclamation of ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’ and Martin Luther’s question ‘What does this mean?’ In our home we began this new season with our son Andrew’s Fisher-Price Little People Advent calendar (yes, I got suckered into secular marketing of the Church season!) and donations to the University of Nebraska Medical Center NICU ($25) where he was born. Our lives have been changed by Christ’s coming and we feel called to help prepare the way for others to know this amazing grace and love. Less is more this time of year. In a world of ‘me’ and ‘now’ sometimes it’s hard to be different, but it can be done. Thanks for the encouragement!

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