Practice Advent as a season of preparation

Shopping should be the last thing on the Christmas to-do list, writes G. Sujin Pak. Instead, the lectionary readings stress repentance. That means ’tis the season to feed the hungry, be satisfied with what you have and live with the end in mind.

Are you ready for Christmas? With the end-of-the-year craziness, the tree to put up, cards to write, shopping to do… “It’s only Thanksgiving!” you might say, “maybe I’ll be ready in a few weeks.”

But if you wait until then to prepare, you will miss it. You might skip straight to that miraculous night in Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the angels singing, the shepherds in the fields, the wise men from the East, the candlelight service culminating in “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Instead, the season of preparation for the coming of Jesus begins with Advent Sunday. The lectionary readings aim to show us the twofold aspect of our Advent celebrations. We not only remember Christ’s first coming at Bethlehem, but we also look to Christ’s second coming at the end of time. (Luke 21:25-31) We live between these times, seeking the daily advent of Christ in our lives, while also under the command to live with the end in mind.

So, then, how do we practice Advent as a season of preparation? How do we get ready for Christmas?

The world says that Christmas is about filling our homes with bright lights and greenery, wishing each other joy and peace, lighting candles, singing carols, listening to Handel’s “Messiah” or to Andy Williams. The world encourages us to shop, shop, shop!

I love Christmas just as much as anyone. I grew up in a house where my mother decorated every room from top to bottom with angels, greenery, candles, manger scenes and, yes, even Santa. I grew up in a house where my father’s favorite way to show love was through the giving of gifts. All of that can be good and beautiful, but I daresay not without truly taking to heart the teachings of our lectionary readings. If we Christians truly prepare for Advent in the ways that our readings guide us -- if we live with the end in mind -- we will find that this is one of those times of year in which Scripture especially commands us to live in counter-cultural ways.

Into our cheeriness and consumerism steps John the Baptist. (Luke 3:1-18) The piercing voice of that camel-skin-clad, locust-eating prophet hollers out, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight!” And what is John’s message? Repentance!

Ah, come on! We’re not really going to put a damper on all the joy and goodwill and think of repentance now, are we? What does repentance have to do with Christmas? But that is precisely what our Advent readings call us to do.

We may have lost sight of the context of this call to repentance for the season of Advent, but the pre-modern church did not. Church fathers such as Augustine, Jerome, Calvin and Luther all underscore John the Baptist’s exhortation as the necessary predisposition for welcoming the coming of Christ.

In the lectionary readings, Malachi proclaims: “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…indeed he is coming…But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…he will refine them like gold and silver until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” (Malachi 3:1-3)

This prophecy points to John the Baptist, who says to the crowds: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:7-8) Then John tells the people what the Messiah is coming to do: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Whoa! How can this be the Christmas message? We have here two rather frightful images of judgment. The refiner’s fire is a white-hot flame that burns away impurities. The winnowing fork is a pitchfork with which farmers toss grain in the air so that the wind catches the chaff and blows it away. Here repentance is a literal stripping away of things to which we have become wrongfully and intimately attached.

How are we to prepare for the coming of the Messiah? This is precisely the question the people ask John in the Gospel of Luke: “What should we do?

Look closely at John’s answer: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11) Then the businessmen and bankers of John’s day come forward, and they, too, ask, “What should we do?” John answers, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:12-13) The military powers come forward and they, too, ask, “And we, what are we to do?” John replies, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats and false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:14)

John the Baptist’s exhortations stand in opposition to the consumerist Christmases of the world. We see not just any repentance but a specifically economic repentance and transformation. What should we be doing to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ? Give to those in need. Live with the end in mind. Feed the hungry. Clothe the homeless. Do not exploit others. Be satisfied with what you have. Is there a more counter-cultural statement than this at this most-shopped season of the year?

The repentance called for is communal, national, economical, political. The time is at hand, says John, when the lofty and high shall be made low, when the corrupt and crooked practices will be made straight, when the violent and rough ways of the world will be rebuked into the smooth ways of peace.

Our Advent texts challenge us to understand the Christmas season in the contexts of the second coming of Christ and of John’s preaching of repentance. They offer us a powerful alternative to the commercialized versions of Christmas.

If they say that Christmas is a season for giving, then truly make it so: Give to those in need. If they say that Christmas is a season for feasting, then feast faithfully: Feed the hungry. If they say that Christmas is a season of joy, hope and peace, then embody those virtues fully in practices to both neighbor and stranger.

John’s exhortation to repent is good news. When we are moved to repentance, then “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” (John 3:6, Isiah 52:10) Christ “shall stand and feed his flock … and he shall be the one of peace.” (Micah 5:4)

So I ask again, “Are you ready for Christmas?”