The Christian new year begins with the first Sunday of Advent, which this year will fall on December 1st. Advent inaugurates not only the beginning of the "Christmas season," but more importantly, a whole new year for Christians which will take them on a journey through the story of God's work in the world, beginning with the birth of Christ, and continuing through his life and ministry (in Epiphany), his suffering and death (in Lent), his resurrection (in Easter), and the life and work of his church (in Ordinary time). The first four weeks of the year (give or take) have, for centuries, been celebrated as Advent, a word which means "coming." The focus of Advent is the immanent arrival of Christ, not only as a baby in Bethlehem thousands of years ago, but also his second coming, to which we look forward and for which we hope and pray. The celebration of Advent is, therefore, all about the embrace of delayed gratification. It has long been thought that the ability to delay gratification is an essential key to successful living. Ever heard of the marshmallow experiment, in which kids were given one marshmallow and then promised a second if they could manage to wait to eat the first until the researcher returned from a fictitious errand? Kids who waited to receive the second marshmallow were much more likely to have higher SAT scores, lower body-mass index, and generally be more satisfied with their lives later in life. Learning to wait, to do the work now and get the paycheck later, to eat your beans first and then your chocolate cake, to learn a skill thoroughly and then get to practice it, is difficult indeed, but vital to our flourishing as human beings.
To practice the self-control required to delay gratification is, in some ways, to be radically counter- cultural. In our consumer-driven western society, we have mastered the art of instantaneous gratification. Our recent economic crises are evidence of the fact that we are not people who are good at waiting. We want the big house now, even if we can't really afford it. We max out our credit cards to buy what we want now, rather than saving for the future. We find ourselves fuming at the lines in the grocery store or the slow speed of our internet connections, unable to stand the wait. Intentionally practicing Advent means leaning into the waiting, knowing that the celebration that will come is worth holding out for. It means waiting, not with the dull endurance of the exhausted person on hold with the cable company's customer service line, but with the disciplined eagerness of a child who knows that her waiting will be sweetly rewarded. If we begin celebrating Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, (or even earlier) we run the risk of being exhausted and tired of it by the time December 25th actually rolls around. Even if we don't find ourselves tired and burnt out by weeks of celebration, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to grow through practicing a character-forming and life-giving discipline.
For centuries, Christians have used Advent as a time of spiritual preparation, a time to reconnect bodies and souls, and a time, like Lent, to examine ourselves and remind ourselves of who we are as real people, faults, failures, and all. As it is the beginning of the Christian year, it can be used as a time for self-reflection, to evaluate our habits and to set goals for the coming months. For us today, a thoughtful observance of Advent can encourage us to identify with first-century Hebrews who were living as captives under foreign occupation, eagerly awaiting the coming of the Messiah, and also to identify with twenty-first century people still in captivity, still waiting their rescue, still oppressed and persecuted. All of us know, to some extent, what it means to be in exile, to be dealing with situations which reflect the fact that the world is broken and that we are far from home. We live in the reality of the fact that life is "not the way it's supposed to be." Practicing Advent acknowledges that reality, and doing it in a church community acknowledges that, while I myself may not be in the midst of oppression, pain, and brokenness at this particular moment, there are brothers and sisters of mine who are.
Interestingly, the famous marshmallow study was recently updated by several sets of researchers who demonstrated that a child's ability to delay gratification is closely linked to how much they trust the person offering them a reward. If the child perceives that the promise of a second marshmallow is likely to be kept, they're way more likely to be able to wait for it. There are probably many Christians who bristle at the suggestion that they hold off on some of the fun traditions that they've grown accustomed to practicing until the proper season: "But I like listening to Christmas carols and baking cookies and putting up lights in November. What's the big deal?" The challenge I'm offering is to trust the practice, to trust (in this case) the thousands of years of tradition which accept the fact that as humans we need intentional periods of both feasting and fasting, each in their proper times. We need to trust that it's better to live according to a calender which implicates us in the grand story of God's work in the world, rather than a calendar devised by Madison Avenue and Wall Street. We are characters living in a story that is much bigger than just ourselves, and we need to trust the Author, refusing to jump ahead to the next chapter before its time.
Tomorrow: Advent 3: Different and Better