Advent Thoughts for the Pagan Within

Advent Thoughts for the Pagan Within
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“I hate this time of year!”

…is what I said to the customer service representative in New Jersey.

“I know,” she said.

She was metaphorically, though patiently holding my hand while I struggled with the Sophie’s choice of risking that either the shipment of Advent wreath supplies I desperately need for church this Sunday won’t make it in time or paying more than 50% of the entire cost for expedited shipping. If it’s not there in time, what’s my Plan B? I’ve already put in hours of work arriving at this option, plus there are still multiple other things that need to be arranged. Will I lose my job? But paying such exorbitant (dare I say, price-gouging?) shipment fees feels like being reckless with church funds. Or even worse, having to end up paying for it myself, if they decide to not reimburse me. Since this is more than I even make in a week, this is not a loss I’m willing to absorb. Clearly, this was an emergency to me.

How much of all this I expressed to her, I’m not sure, but her sympathy immediately calmed me down and made me realize I had lost my footing.

Advent: Time for Quiet or Panic?

Not only is not Christmas yet, it’s not even Advent yet,* and already the whole thing feels overwhelming. That being said, I do love the idea of this time of year. It’s supposed to be the antidote to all the holiday hubbub: a season of quiet, going within, preparing for the arrival of new life. A time to be calm and peaceful, (like my dear customer service rep), so that Christmas joy devoid of anxiety or darkness can burst forth from us like amaryllis and paperwhites set aside in a bowl.

For clergy, part of our job is witnessing to the counter-cultural experience of Advent, offering a spiritual foundation that can carry through the holiday and beyond so that seasonal joy doesn’t end up crushed like old wrapping paper on the floor amidst the pine needles after the last present is opened. However, our actions are the opposite of what we profess with our lips: take it slow, find time for peace and quiet, you don’t have to rush around to make everything perfect. Great advice, but we’re rushing to do the work of Advent plus get everything ready for Christmas as well. Rather than being quieter and slower, it ends up being twice the work!

It’s work of vital importance, because Christmas is not only meaningful and exciting for Christians, it’s also a meaningful time of year for those of other or no religion. We work to get it right so we can share the best of what our faith has to offer as a gift to others. But it is a nearly impossible time of year to model the behavior we encourage.

The Meaning of the Greening

For many of us, this is the time of year when we begin greening our home. Christmas trees are the most famous form of this, but there are also wreaths, garlands, and the aforementioned advent wreaths. The meaning of all this greenery is mostly lost on us now. It’s just pretty and smells nice. But for the Northern Europeans from which this custom comes, winters were brutal. They did not live in well-lit, temperature-controlled homes and have access to fresh food 24/7/365. People died from cold and lack of food. Greening homes and halls around the time of winter solstice (Dec. 21) was a vital reminder of the continuation of life in the midst of the darkest, deadliest season. Solstice was precious to them because they knew that after this date, the days would slowly, almost imperceptibly, be getting longer again. Light was returning.

As modern day Americans who live in mostly urban or suburban settings this dark, bleak world is foreign to us. But if you’ve ever lived in a large city in a northern climate, and ever fell asleep on the train and missed your stop because you’re working two shifts just to make ends meet, so then you get out and are lost, walking through dark, industrial neighborhoods you don’t recognize, your hands numb with cold because you’ve forgotten your gloves and it’s 20 degrees, past a cemetery you didn’t even realize was there and panic begins to set in until you smell the scent of roasting chestnuts in the air and suddenly see a familiar intersection and then you relax. You know you’ll find your way home from here.

Evergreens speak to the pagan in us. Like the comforting scent of roasted food, they point to things we would like to express and believe in, but often can’t. Guideposts to the way home. They are adiaphora, things unnecessary for our salvation, yet they are fun and as such, indispensable for our human nature. We need them in a bleak world to point the way to things we hope for but don’t understand.

The Thing Itself or Just Adiaphora?

The problem with adiaphora is that they’re so satisfying, we often mistake them for the thing itself. We confuse the guideposts with the thing (or the One) they’re pointing to. So we cram our schedule full of events and spend lots of money on gifts and lots of time planning, organizing, decorating, all the while forgetting the thing itself. Then we wonder why we’re left with that empty feeling at the end of it all. So yes, fill your season with all the adiaphora your little heart desires: presents, parties, cookies, evergreens. But don’t lose the thing itself. Don’t lose your footing, your home, your soul.

Will the supplies come in time to save my job, my sleep, my sanity? My fingers are crossed. But part of recovering Advent for me is taking the time to write this as a small offering and thanks for unexpected and probably undeserved compassion from the voice on the phone in New Jersey. Because that’s why I got into this business. I want to be the person who notices these small moments before jumping back into the rush of emails, phone calls, websites, trying to make everything happen. I want to be the person who steadily reminds everyone of the grace under which we are already living rather than constantly running off to seek my next salvation.

There are way too many actual emergencies in the world and in our lives. Let’s not see them where they don’t exist. Evergreens, the smell of roasting chestnuts, time spent with friends…these are all guideposts that lead us home. Take time to cherish and revel in them. Let the pagan in you feel comforted and warmed and confident in the return of the light.

*Begins liturgically this year December 3, or as most calendars full of chocolate or other goodies have it, December 1.

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