Thanksgiving has passed, here in the U.S.A.; places of commerce are playing “holiday” music, restaurants and residences alike are beginning to put on evergreens and lights and big bright ornamental bows. As I came back from a quick trip to the supermarket, I saw potted firs with red bows outside a newly opened Indian restaurant, a woman coming outside with yards of green garland gathered in her hand to twine around the wrought-iron railing at her front steps.
And I, despite no longer being a Christian, find myself as curmudgeonly as ever. Hanukkah is not an equivalent to Christmas. Christmas doesn’t begin till sundown on December 24th. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and the feast of St. Andrew, apostle, martyr, patron saint of Scotland. I refuse to be merry or jolly. I refuse to spend money except on what I myself, right now, need.
My childhood church was named after this season of Advent, and we always made a big deal of it. My love of Advent’s hymns, Advent’s Scriptural readings, Advent’s themes has never gone away. My life would certainly be poorer without Isaiah’s poetry, Bach’s “Wachet auf”, the plainsong antiphons that call on the Divine Wisdom who mightily and sweetly ordereth all things. I used to think I was such a stickler for putting off Christmas observances until Christmas proper because of that childhood experience in a liturgically oriented Christian tradition where Advent meant something. Now, though, I wonder if it’s simply that I love Advent because I love this time of year, as it is, without trying to jolly it up.
Part of me is crying out, Let it be cold. Let it be dark. Let the sunset come early and the temperature fall rapidly as I walk home from work. Let the streets be quiet because people are hurrying home to lighted kitchens, bowls of soup, warm armchairs and cozy beds. Let there be silence; let everyone have time to breathe. Winter is only just beginning; let us pay attention to it, let us not deny it too much.
And another part of me is saying, Let it be dark, let it be silent, lest we forget what the bright lights and jolly songs and admonitions to spend money and have fun are trying to cover up. Let it be dark so that we remember Mike Brown of Ferguson and all the other victims of police brutality, of racism, of our culture’s belief in violence as a solution. Let it be silent so that we can hear the voices that are protesting racism, sexism, capitalism. Let us be cold with those who have no heat in their homes or no homes at all. Let us be silent a little while in honor of those whose voices are silenced and give them a chance to speak. The Advent texts I grew up with protested the exploitation of the poor and the land by the rich; the beautiful, mystical Great O Antiphons enwrap the Magnificat, which calls on God to put down the mighty from their thrones and send the rich empty away.
I just want a little space and time to be quiet, to appreciate the darkness and the crisp night air, to think about the things in my life and in the world that I want to change, to dream through long nights of a better life for myself and for everyone. Yet even pagan voices are telling me don’t worry, spend money, you can achieve whatever you want (as long as you can pay for it). It’s almost enough to make me go back to church so I can hear some words that are truly countercultural.
Then I remember that Antinous the Liberator is still making his long journey through the Underworld, doing battle with the archons that seek to limit our freedom. He will appear at the solstice, crowned with the ivy of Dionysus, and his worshippers will celebrate both the light of his appearing (which is his epiphany and his advent) and the darkness of Night, eldest mother of all gods. Nobody is going to come and save us, to make everything better and clean up the mess we’ve made, but I think both Jesus and Antinous are on our side. They’re standing with the protesters in Ferguson. They are standing close to us in the cold and silent dark.