The Advent Paradox
In the lead up to Christmas, I’ve become aware of how much I really struggle with Christmas in Australia. Almost all the traditions that we engage with as part of the Christmas narrative are European:
The open fire and warm drinks.
Carolling in the dark.
It seems so disconnected from our lives in Australia, where it's still light at 9 at night and again at 5 in the morning.
Christmas day is often hot. I remember sweltering over the extravagant meal that my Nan cooked every year for Christmas, because it HAD to be a hot roast with veggies and all the trimmings otherwise it wasn’t Christmas. The first year after she passed away, we had cold meat on Christmas for the first time in my whole life, and it was like Christmas had died, because the two things were so tied together.
In the northern hemisphere, all the Christmas traditions make sense – gathering in and warming up with a hopeful look forward to the blossoming of spring from the depths of winter. The Danish call it hygge: the cosy, safe space of being known and knowing one another. Even the place of Advent in the Christian calendar makes sense in the context of winter: drawing our attention inwards to the story of the baby born in a manger. Winter lends itself to introspection so much more than heat and summer do.
So, how do we Aussies do introspection at Christmas?
I guess that this is my first Advent paradox: culture and Christmas.
Christmas in Australia seems to be increasingly about magnitude: how extravagant, how lavish. Everything is larger.
Roast chook for Sunday lunch? Christmas, it’s a TURKEY.
It’s four meats and enough sides to make the legs of the table wobble.
It’s a seafood platter almost as big as the flatbed of Uncle Dave’s ute.
It’s cranberry sauce and apple sauce and gravy and four types of desserts…
It’s acquiring (non-native) trees to decorate with disposable decorations that often don’t live beyond Christmas because of the cat, or the toddler.
It’s Christmas lights all over the house and neighbourhoods participating in some crazy contest to prove who has the most decorated house.
It’s Kris Kringle at Every - Single - Thing.
Work Kris Kringle.
Family Kris Kringle.
Mothers’ Group Kris Kringle.
Class Kris Kringle (At this point, who even IS Kris Kringle anyway?!).
Sports team Secret Santa (just to shake it up).
Small group or bible study Kris Kringle (or if you’re like me, they played some odd swapping, fight-to-the-death-for-the-best-gift fiasco).
It’s trying to work out whether the pile of presents under the tree will make everyone happy. It’s sitting down and panicking because you have no IDEA what to buy that person, but you HAVE to because its Christmas and what will people think?? It’s panic- purchasing a couple of hundred dollars of Bunnings’ vouchers to give to people, only to receive roughly the same amount of Bunnings’ vouchers from people who have also panic-purchased, in order to maintain the appearance of gift-giving at Christmas. I can’t be the only person that feels that we’ve gone wrong somewhere?
Time to slow down
In an effort to ground myself in something divine and delightful, I decided to read through some Advent Lectionary readings and initially thought, “What?? How is this Christmassy?”
If you’re interested in reading along, the passages are:
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
As I read, I began to notice a beautiful theme, embedded just below the skin of the text…
You are the Potter, we are the clay.
Come back and save us!
You’ve given us all the gifts we need to await you.
Stay the course, keep watch… time is blossoming, change is coming.
Ahhh! This is advent. This is Christmas. The paradox is that for us in the rush of preparing for and participating in extravagant celebrations, Advent should be a moment – a month – for us to take a breath, to take stock of our preparedness for the coming change. It’s supposed to be reflective. Joyful, yes, but reflective. What gifts have we been given in order to wait? How desperate are we for change?
As the world goes BIG, we need to go small.
To place ourselves in the narrative of the Christmas story and go small.
And this is my second paradox:
Advent is a space for us to reflect on the story of Christmas – for what it really is:
A moment in time in which the God of All That Is decided that a baby, born to a small family in the middle of an occupied country, would be the one to show us how to love.
It occurs to me that we often try to show people that we love them by buying them stuff, or doing things for them. God, I guess, had also tried that. He protected the people of Israel, allowed them – and helped them – accumulate wealth and standing among the nations, and yet they still missed the message. It sort of feels like God shook his head a bit and went small; that he decided that the only real way that you can do love is in person, up close, in the stinky, messy, dusty face to face reality of life in flesh.
It feels quite removed from the picture of the nativity that we tend to paint though, doesn’t it? Serene Mary, with a glowing sort of halo. Calm Joseph, watching over. Cherubic Jesus, asleep in the hay. Animals politely, quietly, peering over the stalls to watch the wonder of the Virgin Birth. A steady stream of amazing guests who have come to visit the new baby King.
Let me diverge for a moment – but I promise it is relevant.
I’ve had one clinical birth, and two non-clinical births: that is, one in a hospital and two, not in hospital settings. In a hospital, you’re sort of removed from the general messy reality – not from the pain and the struggle and the hard work of it all, but at least they collect the sheets up and someone else does the washing.
In a home birth, there is very little separation from the mess. If you’ve had a baby, you know, it’s not serene. It’s not generally calm. It’s not peaceful, it’s work. It’s exhausting. It’s painful. It’s messy.
People don’t realise that you bleed for up to six weeks afterwards… that every time your milk lets down for the baby to drink, your uterus cramps and you think YOU’RE GOING TO DIE.
Breast feeding is hard. It hurts. It’s exhausting. I CANNOT imagine bleeding and milk and nappies and exhaustion without running water and an electric kettle and a microwave to heat up a wheat-pack.
Then people start to arrive. People with casseroles were hard enough, but I reckon I’d be totally over the angelic choir, the nobles from Persia with their entourages and the stream of dudes with sheep… Ugh.
Dirt and mess, stink and realness.
The God of All The Things, fully present in that place.
And this is culmination of this Advent week, right? This is love. It’s not the shining, well presented nativity in the Myer window. It’s the love of God, embodied in flesh, living with us.
It’s the amazing, cosmologically and eternally significant moment in time, a dramatic in-breaking of God into the story of humanity that forever changes our trajectory… so humbly and lowly presented in a completely pedestrian way.
An ordinary Christmas
So as Christmas approaches, where do you place yourself in the story? The first Christmas after I had my first child, my heart was very close to Mary. My second and third children were born soon after Christmas so as I passed through the celebrations it turned my mind, once more to the role of Mary, and the experience of Mary in our Christmas story. As time has gone on, I have become increasingly aware of my own mess and pain, and yet, along with it, the intimate closeness of God here with me in it.
I think that as we head toward Christmas, it is encouraging to draw ourselves into this mystery of Sublime and Mundane, of glorious and ordinary, as a way of reframing Christmas. I don’t have loads of answers of how you can do this in your life, but I would encourage you all as we head out into our lives over the next couple of weeks to think about how God gave us a huge gift at Christmas. I don’t think that gift is Jesus. I think that the gift is love. Rather than giving us things, he gave us love, transformative powerful love. For Christmas this year, I want to encourage you to be love, not buy love. Be the embodied, deep, extravagant love of God to those around you.
Beck is the arty, creative, nerdy half of the team at Intergen, where she thinks a lot about theology and the ways that we can engage with the text and traditions of the Bible. She’s deeply unsettled by the status quo. She’s committed to finding ways to make space for people to explore faith, spirituality and their own inner worlds in creative ways. She’s currently socially distancing in a house with her three kids, two dogs, and many, many house plants.
See all previous articles by Beck Finger