We're only a few days into Advent, and most of us have been bombarded by so much Christmas music and Christmas advertising and Christmas everything that we're already sick of the season. In a world where the Christmas countdown begins sometime before Halloween, it's easy to lose sight of the beauty of Advent, and to get so caught up in the material trappings that we can't see the spiritual forest for the tinsel-covered trees.
We live in a goal-oriented society, and in this case, Christmas is the end zone we're running toward at breakneck speed, hardly looking at what's going on along the sidelines. But Advent beckons us to stop the madness, to stop the running, to focus on the journey as much as the destination. Advent offers us serenity amid the insanity, with its beautiful interplay of darkness and light, its Scriptural focus not only on the coming of the Christ child but on the second coming of Jesus, and with its quiet but constant insistence that we prepare -- not just for a day but for a lifetime, and the next life one.
How do we translate those transcendent ideas into everyday practices? Here are five easy ways to slow down and savor the season:
1. Create rituals. Simple daily rituals can serve as spiritual anchors whenever the secular version of the holiday season begins to suck you in and stress you out. These rituals can be as elaborate or as easy as you choose to make them. If fashioning a Jesse tree out of branches and homemade ornaments depicting scenes from Scripture will make you more stressed, find something simpler, perhaps a traditional paper Advent calendar with little doors that reveal the signs and symbols of the season. And there's always the Advent wreath, a peaceful, prayerful way to mark the days leading up to Christmas. The glow of its candles, increasing with each week, serves as a visible reminder of the light that comes into our world at Christmas and overcomes the darkness for all time.
2. Practice patience. Advent is about waiting, a concept that's becoming increasingly unpopular in our world of instant gratification and constant connectedness. We want what we want and we want it now. Advent reminds us that waiting can be a good thing, a time to prepare ourselves, a time to rediscover what's important, a time to serve those who are not as fortunate. When you are waiting in an endless line at the mall or circling a parking lot fighting for a space, try to be intentional about the way you approach and accept the situation. What if you pray for the woman who just stole your spot? What if you smile at the man who runs back to grab an extra item off the rack while you stand in the check-out line gritting your teeth?
3. Seek out silence. Here's another challenge for those of us used to the constant buzz of the world around us, whether it's the TV at home, the radio in the car or the Muzak at the mall. We don't like silence. It makes us uncomfortable. It feels unproductive. Shouldn't we be doing something during this quiet time? Not necessarily. Take just five minutes each day to sit in silence. Turn off cell phones, TVs, computer bells and whistles, anything that will distract you, and just be. Chances are that after only one week of daily silence, you'll be a lot better at #2 on this list. Silence breeds interior peace and exterior calm. Try it and see how five minutes a day can change your Christmas season and your life.
4. Rethink gift-giving. Advertisers tell us we need stuff, lots of stuff to be happy, and our loved ones need lots of stuff, too, preferably wrapped in shiny paper and bows. Before you know it, the shopping and spending and running and wrapping has us wishing the Christmas would just get here already and be over and done.
Take back the gift-giving part of this season. Tell family and friends to cut back on the gifts they plan to give you and yours. Give from the heart rather than the wallet. Instead of a gift card, find some one-of-a-kind gift that will surprise and satisfy -- if it's locally made, even better. Rather than an extra video game or doll, give a child a "date" with mom or dad, a special day where they get to go somewhere or do something with a parent without distractions like Facebook or work phone calls or TV. Even gift cards can become heartfelt when done right, say with an offer to tag along on the shopping spree and buy lunch for the two of you.
5. Start close to home. You can't change the culture, but you can change the way you participate in it. Rather than scold society for the ways it doesn't live up to the spiritual aspects of this holiday season, do what you can to refocus on Jesus and the Advent journey within your own four walls among your own family. Light a candle and pray before dinner each night. Express gratitude to and for each other. Give your loved ones the gift of your time and your presence. Find a charity that could use some help, whether it's through donations or volunteer hours. Begin to set your own life to a sacred rhythm, and before you know it people around you will want a piece of what you've found. That's how the culture changes: one heart, one home at a time.