The day after Halloween I heard Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” on the radio. Carey’s classic, absent of Christian themes, has become a cultural touchstone for the American experience of the holiday season. This experience led me to wonder, in a deeper way, about the value of Christmas music during Advent. In past years I have generally enjoyed Christmas music in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but I’d like to unpack some of my ongoing reflection this Advent.
I’ll start with a startling analogy. Would you sing “Happy Birthday” to someone a month before that person’s birthday? Assuming your answer is “no,” we are left with the question of why Christmas music when it is not the season of Christmas, which is Dec. 24-Jan. 9. In the business of the holiday season, I’d like to suggest we take up some Advent patience. Few things could be more fitting, actually.
Bernard of Clairvaux noted the three presences of Christ that Advent calls us to recognize — past, future and present. Christ was present in the past in the incarnation. Christ will be present in the future at the eschaton, the end of time. Christ is also present today. Recognizing the three presences of Christ have unique difficulties.
Recognizing Christ in the past, in the incarnation, is no small effort. Jesus, a first-century Jewish carpenter from the backwaters of the Roman Empire, did not think, act and speak according to the sensibilities of 21st century Americans in our Midwestern culture. He cannot fit the mold most moderns assign to him. The better we get to know Jesus through Scripture, the stranger he becomes to our modern sensibilities. He is ever enigmatic.
Recognizing Christ in the future is a stranger notion still. We speak of the eschaton as the fulfillment of salvation history, of all that has come to pass. It is the promise of redemption, the culmination of grace, the joining together of all creation in song and endless praise.
Recognizing Christ in the present is our most concrete task. We have been caught up in what was wrought through the incarnation. All has been restored and reordered to Christ. We participate in this good that God has done for us in prayer, experienced as a sacred stillness.
Recognizing Christ in the past, future, and present is our Advent call. We might draw on Vatican II to aid us. The document on the Sacred Liturgy, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” notes four presences of Christ in the liturgy — in the minister, in the Eucharist, in the word of God proclaimed in Scripture, and in the community gathered together (SC #7).
We have guideposts then, for recognizing Christ as the coming weeks unfold. Advent is about a disciplined anticipation of Christ’s return. A steeled anticipation can function as a healthy antidote to the culture of immediate gratification that we find ourselves swimming in.
An image from Scripture may serve us well this Advent: “A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks… but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake — but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was fire — but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a tiny whispering sound” (1 Kings 19:11-13). Elijah recognized God’s presence in the tiny whispering sound, the still small voice. We join Elijah in recognizing God in the stillness.
Advent is the collision of the past, present and the future — the already and not yet. As for the value of Christmas music during Advent, that is best left for each of us to discern. Regardless, in Advent we keep our eyes affixed to the horizon for the return of the Son of Man, affixed to the present moment ready to recognize God where we hadn’t before, and affixed to the past and our memory of God’s grace in the incarnation.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)