Long before Christmas season was a consumer extravaganza starting just after Halloween, it was a period of solemn religious reflection starting four Sundays before Christmas. For some of us, it still is. In America that means it's both. I experience, and enjoy, the secular Christmas of eggnog, gift wrap, and Dean Martin, but I'm also mindful, maybe a bit more each winter, of Advent and its quieter demands. We're in the bleak midwinter, of the season and sometimes of the spirit. And midwinter's never seemed bleaker than when I watch the news.
Advent was originally a period of fasting, a shorter chillier Lent before the twelve days of Christmas feasting. Part of me still prefers that model to the current model of feasting until the 25th and then collapsing into post-holiday blues. I don’t diet in December, although maybe I should, but it’s worth a little sobriety and reflection. We are in the desert of short days.
Jesus of Nazareth was not really born in winter. But he came in the midst of a spiritual winter. He came into a dispirited world. And, as our parish priest recently reminded me, Jesus was born into a political winter: into an occupied country, whose local puppet rulers had grown corrupt and whose imperial masters had let their own republic die. It was a season for cynicism, a solstice of despair. And the faint gleam of hope that Jesus brought was a long way off. As I’ve blogged before, Christmas is Christianity’s second holiday. Easter celebrates the fulfillment of hope. Christmas only gives a far-off sign, a cold shimmer on a winter night, to keep hope alive. The promise will be kept, but not yet. Not for years yet. You need to hold onto your faith for decades more.
Jesus was born poor and naked in Herod’s kingdom. And Herod was no good king. The gospel of Matthew says that Herod sent soldiers to kill the infant Jesus, and to massacre hundreds of children hoping to get the one they’d been sent for. That story isn’t historical, but it is a lesson about power and fear and how monarchs lead.
Medieval and Renaissance England loved to stage King Herod. He was one of the great roles of English theater. He ranted. Long, insane rants about how great and powerful he was, how he was the greatest of the great. An incarnation of the Sin of Pride, made ridiculous by that sin. Hamlet is still using Herod as the example of over-the-top acting: to “out-Herod Herod” is to out-ham the hams.
So Shakespeare’s vision of the Christmas holidays involved a ranting, egomaniacal king, an absurd boaster who was actually a foreign puppet. But that vainglorious buffoon sends armed men to tear children from their mother’s arms. There’s such a thing as getting too close to the original meaning of Christmas.
It’s Advent, and we live in Herod’s kingdom. Children are taken from their mothers, and the king is angry with the wise men. Virtue and kindness are out of favor. Despair comes easy. But Advent’s promise is hope in the distance: a star on the horizon, an obscure birth in a village far from fame or power. Tomorrow may not be better. Tomorrow may be even darker than today. But a better day is coming, in its own time, and when it comes no earthly power will be able to delay it.
What to do in the cold dark days between the promise and the fulfillment? Stay faithful. Make ourselves ready. Remember that Herod will not last forever. And hold tight to the advice the angel gives the shepherds: “Be not afraid.”
Happy holidays and merry Christmas.