I love the four tenets of the Advent Conspiracy campaign: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. I am glad to know that a new global network of amazing and helpful projects has sprung up because of the generosity of Christians. I bear no grudge toward the wells being built, the families protected from harm and the children lifted out of poverty. Well done, [AC]. This is indeed the work of the church.
But it’s not conspiratorial. Conspiracy should get you in trouble. Its literal meaning of breathing together hints at a group of people with rebellion on their minds, huddled together, taking in the same air because their mouths are so close. People who participate in conspiracies are dangerous. None of the actions urged by the [AC] folks as ways to “fully engage” Christmas would land anyone in jail.
I believe that the work of the church, when faithful and brave, should land us in jail. Getting eye rolls from the family members who expect a truckload of gifts and you brought them a picture of the well their money built is not the same as being persecuted for righteousness. It is brave in this day of unchecked capitalism to renounce practices of hyper spending, but it’s not a conspiracy.
Nor is it an observation of Advent. Throughout the [AC] materials, the campaign (or project or effort) is described as a different way of celebrating Christmas. The word “Advent” pops in and out, sometimes used with the word “season.” What is missing is an explanation of how the season of Advent relates to the season of Christmas.
Here I must guard against being a liturgical snob. I don’t wish to suggest that there is only one way of observing the church calendar and its seasonal offerings. I do love the seasons of the church and wish that Christians everywhere deepened our practice of them. What bothers me is that [AC] seems to use Advent as a word that roughly describes the weeks leading up to Dec. 25, but nothing else. The current image on the AC website of the typical American home with an upside down Christmas tree in front is compelling and wonderfully points to the table-turning nature of the good news. But: it’s a Christmas tree.
There is such richness in the pattern of keeping Advent, which is different from the season of Christmas. It is the very beginning of the new church year. We say “Happy new year” to each other on its first Sunday. Four weeks of worship are marked in deep blues, pointing to the deepening darkness of the night sky in the northern hemisphere. Light is scarce on the earth, so we light more and more candles as each week passes. We read weird passages of scripture: apocalyptic visions in Isaiah and Daniel, sections of the gospels that throw the disciples into panic. John the Baptist warns us of the Lord’s winnowing fork and the angel Gabriel crushes the vocal chords of old Zechariah. Mary, pregnant and pondering, sings out about the downfall of tyrants and the emptying of the rich.
Advent is meant to be dark and strange, even foreboding.
Wait. Watch. Hope. Prepare. The disciplines of Advent grew up much like the practice of Lent. To prepare well for the rejoicing of Easter, the community needed a time of cleansing and repentance. Six weeks of Lent keep that preparation with fasting, giving and prayer. Advent also had a penitential emphasis for many years. Recently, the church has favored a simpler practice of keeping quiet and being intentional in prayer and waiting.
Most importantly, these seasons of the church are kept communally. Together. The core of [AC] is a personal journey, a “moment between you and Jesus” as one leader describes. I think this is the heart of my trouble with [AC]. While the practices put forth are very faithful and the spirituality rich, it is at its heart another set of personal choices. I will spend less. I will give more. I will worship more fully and, in my private heart, be closer to Jesus. It is Christianity within capitalist and individualist norms, not a Christianity conspiring to take on the powers and principalities.
And I must tell the truth: I have never been jailed for my faith either. I benefit from capitalism every day and I do not regularly stand in the street shouting it down. But I hold out hope that a funny little band of Christians deeply keeping the patterns of their faith just might be offering a vision for another way to live.
Finally, [AC] also excites and inspires me. Clearly, there is a huge amount of energy and passion among Christians to live differently. The ache we all feel as a people is leading us to get creative with dismantling oppression, as the gospel compels to do. Can our saying Yes to Advent be a profound No to capitalism, racism, and imperialism? Will those of you who do engage the [AC] challenge me and my community to be brave and fearless for the gospel? What is the Incarnate One inviting us to become as the body of Christ in the world?
Let’s breathe together.
Liv Larson Andrews believes in the sensus lusus, or playful spirit. Liturgy, worship and faithful practice are at their best when accompanied with a wink, she says.