Inhabiting Advent: Two Practices

[Bobby Gross lives in Atlanta.  He is the author of “Living the Christian Year”.]

Bobby Gross approaches Advent like this:

If Advent is a time of watching for signs of hope and waiting for the light of Christ, the time for God to enlarge us with His quiet presence, how can we enter into this season and let it enter into us?  The approach I have embraced is to give myself two permissions, practice two disciplines, and cultivate two postures.

This post will focus on the two practices that he speaks of.

Practice Restraint and Practice Retreat

“My struggle boils down to this,” bemoaned my friend Courtney. “You can’t be Mary and Martha at the same time; someone has to do the cooking!” She vented his frustration after a dinner party where the conversation had turned to the tension between Advent as a spiritual season and December as a month of cultural craziness. “Your description of Advent requires Mary-time,” she sent in a later e-mail,

“Yet of all the times of the year–especially for a woman with children and a conscience–Advent is the most impossible to be Mary-like. The Christmas machine (church, school, family, neighborhood, office, charitable activities) is so giant that it would require radical steps to extricate oneself—steps that could send a message to one’s community of being uncharitable and that could feed resentment in one’s own family.”

Point taken.

To keep Advent as the season of spiritual reflection and waiting does require us to be countercultural. It is fitting then for the proclamation of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-18) to be an Advent text, since he calls us to examine our patterns of behavior–resource sharing, business practices, uses a power–over against what is common in our culture. It is also fitting for Courtney to bring up the domestic episode involving Jesus and the two sisters of Bethany in Luke 10:38-42.  (I suspect Martha would agree with Courtney’s complaint.) Indeed, we should take Mary of Bethany as our model: she went against cultural expectations in giving her attention to Jesus, and Jesus praised her choice and shielded her from Martha’s disapproval.

Our culture says, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” And it starts saying it right after Halloween! We live year-round in a consumer society, but Christmas time is consumerism gone nuts. The cacophony of advertising, the appropriation of religious themes for commercial gain, secularizing and sentimentalizing the sacred, all of this disturbs us. Still, it’s not easy to resist pressures.

So we must choose to practice restraint. Although fasting in Advent is no longer emphasized, a variation of this discipline can benefit us spiritually. When we fast, we abstain from something that, at other times and in appropriate measures, is good. What good thing could we forgo or cut back as an Advent discipline? Could we skip mailing Christmas cards and sending greetings at Easter instead? Or simplify gift-buying by making charitable donations in loved ones’ names as an alternative? Could we decline a holiday party or two? Or cut back on baking goodies–and on eating them? There is no right answer, of course, and we will likely take different steps in different years. The point is to practice restraint as a countercultural act that opens up space in our lives for God.

We can also practice retreat. Again, our culture says, “Go! Go! Go!” and “Go! Do! Do!” We can easily feel that our social reputation depends on our obedience to these impulses. Or our self-image. Or even our sense of spiritual worth. But these imperatives lure us into a trap, and we unthinkingly heed them to our spiritual detriment. If we practice restraint from activity, we can use some of the time gained to be alone, quiet and reflective. Even if the time is meager, even at the risk of criticism, we can follow Mary in her choice to stop and sit for a time at the feet of Jesus.

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