Christian religion that aligns itself with societal trends runs the risk of becoming indistinguishable from our culture. William Hordern, a recently deceased Canadian theologian and a mentor of mine would say, “It fails to tell the world something the world is not already telling itself.”
Several weeks ago, my wife, Marlene, and I attended the Advent Procession of Lessons and Carols at Christ Church, Calgary. It is an annual event that I find to be the ideal way to begin my own Advent preparation. I was impressed, this time, by “A Word about Advent,” included in the worship guide and prepared by one of the clergy to explain the purpose of the service. I take the liberty to quote the Ven. M. Ansley Tucker, the rector, with her permission:
“These days, even our secular culture is beginning to resist pre-Christmas saturation—mall music, tinsel, glitter, and the ubiquitous pressure to buy, buy, buy and give, give, give. The Church sees the four weeks leading up to Christmas as a completely distinct season, with its own themes and preoccupations, to which Christmas emerges as a welcome and surprising answer. So, before we move too quickly to the babe in the manger, and angelic choruses, shepherds in the field abiding, we pause to consider what might be described as ‘the human condition.’
“If Christmas is to be more than a lovely story, we need to know what need it answers. This service then, pulls up deliberately short of the birth of Jesus and the familiar carols of the Christmas season, and invites us instead to ponder our need for divine intervention, the ‘darkness’ from which we long to emerge, our hope for something better, and our conviction that one day, the ‘tree of life’ will no longer be forbidden to us.”
Reflecting on William Hordern’s striking contribution and M. Ansley Tucker’s service notes led me to an important realization. The church does have a distinct Advent message that is not mere mimicry of what is going on all around us.
The biblical message—beginning with the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and our various Christian traditions—speaks of God’s intervention into a world enshrouded by darkness, our hope for better things and our anticipation that we will indeed come to know good from evil in the same way God does.
When I speak of being “countercultural,” I don’t mean being “anti-culture.” We are very much part of our culture. It is in that context that we need to make our Christian witness. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke of God as being “transcendent in the very midst of life” and that our faith stance must attempt something similar.
Well-planned and celebrated services of Advent and Christmas can provide us with spiritual discernment and vitality to help us live creatively and hopefully. Many people out there are onto something when they hesitate to participate in secular Christmas expressions like buying and giving.
God grant us the ability to recognize and reflect that something more.
Wayne A. Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps to co-ordinate adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church in Calgary.