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Celebrate Advent: A Time to Wait, Improvise, and Survive

Wild Christianity

Celebrate Advent: A Time to Wait, Improvise, and Survive

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While Christmas embodies birth, new life, and hope realized, Advent is about pregnancy, uncertainty, and faith in fearful times.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you may be used to hearing “Let it Snow” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” adjacent to each other on the holiday playlist, but Advent and Christmas were not always winter holidays.

It seems most likely that Jesus was born in the spring, but as the church codified its traditions and calendar, sometimes co-opting or outright erasing pagan holidays, Jesus’s birth was moved to the winter. Originally, December 25th was a holiday to honor Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) as the days began to lengthen following the winter solstice. As Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire, the pagan traditions were overshadowed and replaced, moving Jesus’s birth to December in Western Christianity.

Either through syncretism or serendipity, Advent maintains many of the themes of the winter solstice celebrations; both are periods of waiting, survival, and faithfulness.

Pregnancy, Uncertainty, and Faith

For obvious reasons, this time of year is dominated by the celebratory tenor of Christmas. However, Advent was historically a season of fasting and preparation, not unlike the more solemn observance of Lent. Christmas, the joyous birthday party for Jesus, has all but erased the delight born of anticipation that Advent offers. Christmas is about birth, new life, and hope realized. Advent is about pregnancy, uncertainty, and faith amidst fearful times.

[Read: “Creatively Facing Fear.”]

The story of two parents preparing for the birth of their first child, Advent is largely about expectant waiting. (The Latin word, adventus, means “coming.”) Mary was waiting for her child to come into this world. She was waiting to see if the angel Gabriel’s promise would be true. Waiting to see if her faith was misplaced, and waiting to see how her family and community would receive her—a teenaged, unwed virgin and mother-to-be.

Waiting, Improvising, Surviving

Winter similarly is a season of waiting. We wait for the victorious sun to return, like the ancient Romans. We wait for the frozen ground to thaw so we can begin planting again, refilling our empty cupboards. It’s not that winter doesn’t have its own unique wisdom and beauty, but there’s a reason almost every culture has some sort of celebration to mark the turn toward longer, warmer days. There’s a reason that metaphors of Mother Nature being pregnant with the first fruits of spring come so easily to mind.

Advent and winter are also about survival. We rarely think of the nativity story as a thriller, but Mary and Joseph were likely in some very risky situations. With Mary late into her third trimester, they had to travel over 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to report for the Roman census. This grueling trip would’ve taken days, over rough terrain, with threats from bandits and wild beasts alike. When they finally arrived, the contractions began, but famously there was no room at the inn, so they improvise in a barn.

Essential to survival in this story is creativity. Mary and Joseph are forced to think quickly, to make do with what they have when things don’t go according to plan. They also rely on the generosity and cunning of the Magi who bring gifts and who trick the villainous King Herod, who wishes to kill the child, keeping the location the newborn unknown.

Historically, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, winter has been a dangerous time. The cold brought on sickness and the short days made it impossible to grow most crops. Even today we recognize the creativity that some winter meals require as we try to figure out what to make for dinner when all we have are onions, squash, and carrots. Whether it’s making a stew out of old vegetables or turning the living room into a cushion-fort because it's too cold to play outside, we recognize that creativity is an essential aspect of surviving the winter even in modern times.

[Read: “Honoring the Inner Child During the Holidays.”]

Advent = Faith

Above all, Advent is about faith, most profoundly exemplified by Mary. Upon meeting the angel Gabriel, Mary is troubled, and he reassures her: “Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). You can understand her trepidation, her skepticism, but her response? “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” This was not some sort of blind certainty on Mary’s part, for faith is not about certainty. No, faith is an honest embrace of what we don’t know, abiding the discomfort that comes with doubt, with facing the unknown.

Faith is essential to surviving the bleak winter months. We walk tentatively through this season, uncertain of what it will bring to bear. Will it be harsh and extend into what should be spring? The winter solstice itself is an anticipatory celebration that occurs when the worst months of winter are likely still ahead of us. Similarly, when Jesus was born, the story and hardship had only just begun. The seeds of faith planted in Advent will not sprout on Christmas, for it will be another 30 years before the boy from Nazareth even begins his public ministry.

Although the Roman Empire colonized pagan holidays as it was Christianized, the themes of solstice celebrations persist in the Advent story. As we bundle up for the coming season of jovial celebration, may we also remember the wisdom that comes with waiting, the creativity that survival requires, and the faithfulness that hard times may produce.

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