From: Jonathan Bailes
Advent is wonderful, isn’t it? What with the candles, the songs, those delightfully cheerful words that feature in our liturgy and adorn our coffee mugs: hope, peace, joy, love. And then, of course, there are all the trappings of the Christmas season, which even the most fastidious Anglicans (yes, I mean you, Mark Booker) can’t entirely avoid: the colored lights, hot cider, mulled wine, cookies, parties, and friends. It really is the greatest time of the year.
But all this merry-making comes at a certain cost, which is that it invariably leads us into the trap of sentimentality. Americans love being sentimental all the time, but during this time of the year we really indulge (just think of the Coca-Cola ads and the home-for-the-holidays Hallmark TV specials). But don’t be fooled. Sentimentality feels nice, but it is a trap, a lie, a false gospel, as it were. Why? According to Flannery O’Connor, the Christian message of redemption addresses the tragedy of sin through the brutal death of our Savior and “our slow participation in it.” The Christian gospel is unflinchingly honest about the world and sin, about what one theologian has called the “general cussedness” of people. Sentimentality, on the other hand, “is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence.” Sentimentality lulls us into thinking that through all our festivities we have experienced the reality of peace and joy and love, and it ignores the conflict and despair and hatred in the world and in our own hearts.
If we wish to avoid falling into the trap of sentimentality this Advent, there are few better cures than the wonderfully unsentimental words of Scripture. Take today’s readings from Isaiah and 2 Thessalonians. Both readings refer to the coming of God (or, more specifically in the case of 2 Thessalonians, the return of Christ), but they do not avoid the reality of sin. In Isaiah 5, the coming of God brings reckoning for those who have rejected God’s law by amassing wealth and property without caring for the needy, finding satisfaction in physical pleasure instead of the Lord, and dismissing the reality of God’s judgment. In 2 Thessalonians, the imminent return of Christ is a source of hope for suffering Christians, but also a guarantee of judgment on sin. These scriptures do not skip over the reality of sin to a “mock state of innocence,” nor do they promise hope or joy by ignoring or avoiding our grief or our need to repent.
So, how ought the hard words of Paul and Isaiah shape our Advent experience?Rachael tells me that my reflection sounds depressing and seems to communicate a Grinch-like disapproval of Christmastime cheer. I hope not. I believe that Advent is a cause for hope and we should look forward to Christ’s arrival with expectancy. But I don’t want to fall for the cheap, shallow versions of peace and joy that sentimentality offers. I want the real thing, the kind that Christ brings, and I want to be ready for it when it arrives in full.
I live in Brighton with my wife, Rachael, and our three kids, and I really do love Advent and the Christmas season.