Busted Halo

Recent college graduate José Martinez attempts to get back to the true meaning of Advent and prepare properly for Christmas this year, living alternatively to the overwhelming consumerism surrounding him.

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December 6th, 2011

The Grittier Side of Advent


It’s a little more than a week into Advent 2011 and I’ve managed to write two posts for this Alternative Advent blog. The first was about my decision to live this Advent a little more intentionally — to really focus on waiting for Jesus’ birth, instead of just looking forward to Christmas. The second was about Joseph’s model of waiting in joyful hope, and how much trust that requires. I figured the third post should update readers on how I’m doing with the whole living Advent intentionally thing. And by that, I mean my editor told me that’s what this post should be about.

I’ll be honest: I’m at a loss. I can say that I’m waiting intentionally all I want, but what does that mean? So far, all that’s done is make me think twice about being excited about putting up a Christmas tree. I’ve also put off listening to Christmas music and watching my favorite Christmas movie of all time, the Jim Carrey version “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I haven’t gone ice skating or looking at Christmas lights — I haven’t even found the time to roast chestnuts over an open fire. (Although that’s mostly because my parents banned me from handling open fires in our household after a marshmallow experiment gone very, very awry.) Now that I think about it, I’m not feeling the Christmas spirit at all, and I still don’t know what the Advent spirit is supposed to feel like.

Cue all the quotes about how Christmas is more than the decorations (especially nutcrackers because those things are the worst), more than the cookies (even though the cookies are very important), more than the presents (which I am by no means opposed to). Every Christmas movie I’ve ever watched — even “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” — has a glimmer of the same message: Christmas is about the love, kinship and community. It’s about generosity, joy and acceptance. Of course, for the religiously inclined, it’s first and foremost about the arrival of the birth of Jesus. But even the secular manifestation of Christmas has a profound basis, and maybe our culture is so consumerist because it’s simply easier to celebrate Christmas that way, rather than actually figuring out how we can be Christmas for each other.

So maybe Advent is better viewed as a time of refocusing — a time to stop what we’re doing, reflect and think about how we’re doing in terms of loving, being in community and living a joyful lifestyle.  Maybe instead of glazing over the Nativity story, think about how you would react today if you found out you were pregnant even though you’ve never had sex. Now think about how you’d react if an angel, who we have to assume appeared in a fiery burst of awesome after kicking down Mary’s door, was the one who told you. Or maybe put yourself in Mary and Joseph’s shoes as they’re trekking around Jerusalem looking for shelter — Mary’s very pregnant and pretty grouchy, and Joseph’s exhausted and also grouchy because Mary’s been on the donkey all day and he hasn’t gotten a turn. Or imagine how you’d feel if the worst-case scenario played out, and instead of a room becoming available at the last minute, you had to go to a stable and sleep surrounded by a bunch of filthy animals — and then your water broke. Maybe you’re one of the Magi, who helps Jesus and his family evade King Herodand in those days, nobody pulled that kind of wool over King H’s eyes. That’s terrifying stuff.

These were real people in real situations, is what I’m trying to say. We’ve mythologized the Nativity so much — and in doing so, have made Advent so abstract — that we forget how gritty the first Advent was. It’s hard to reconcile that with smiling snowmen, red-nosed reindeer and big, jolly old fat guys who break into our houses and leave us presents. (How did that become a thing?) It’s hard for me to focus on waiting for Jesus, and to reflect on the faith that motivated Mary and the love that motivated Joseph, when I’ve got Christmas coming at me from every corner. But we’ve got to work with what we have, right? In this case, what we have is a society of instant gratification. So maybe it’s OK for me to listen to my Christmas playlist, and it’s OK for me to watch the Grinch, and it’s OK for me to eat every single Christmas cookie I can get my hands on, as long as I temper it with my reflection on what the less joyful, more human side of Advent looks like. It’s not as easy as falling into your local conglomerate’s definition of “the Christmas season,” but it’ll be a little more meaningful.

The Author : José Martinez
José Martinez is a writer who works primarily for Southern California Public Radio, reporting on the South Los Angeles beat and focusing on issues of health and quality of life. He's a graduate of Loyola Marymount University and has a degree in theological studies. From the way he writes, it's clear he thinks he's funny. There are few things he loves more than California burritos, the way his dogs run into walls, and road trips. He'd like it if you tweet him.
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  • Ffelicity Furber

    All Advent I have been meditating on the enormity of what that young Jewish girl said yes to, and what her yes had meant

  • Jamie

    Jose, I loved all of your posts regarding Advent. When I imagine the grittiness of the first Advent, I can imagine Mary’s anticipation of having her first child and the concern of Joseph in finding a place to stay and providing for his family. These are real life struggles many people go through. But I think about the other players in the story, like the innkeeper who provided the stable for them to sleep in, the shepherd who came to adore him and the magi who brought gifts. To me, Advent is the season where I have to examine where can I bring the gift of hope into the world. In the Knights of Columbus, we started a campaign “So That the World May Know a New Hope” in which we highlight the many charitable activities throughout the world we participate in which brings hope to many people throughout all levels of society. To me, I’m glad that the New Year follows Advent and Christmas because it’s a time in my prayer life to discern where I myself and with my fellow Knights can we bring a little hope into the world. We look for ways to share our hearts and our hands with others throughout the year. During Advent, family and other families sing Christmas carols at a nursing home, visit a VA Hospital on Christmas eve, some work at a Catholic Worker home on Christmas morning and we host a Christmas party and accept donations to a specific project in Haiti. In the end, I think we must look for ways in which we can be Christ’s hands, feet and heart in the world that longs for hope. Good luck in finding what God’s inviting you to discover in your heart!

  • Stephen Taylor

    REALLY good article.

  • Sandy

    Great article, Jose. The more we can insert ourselves into the stories that are our heritage, the better chance we have at remembering the grit of life that was present then as it is now. How many friends would Mary have had on Facebook after she told her story? We like to think she was embraced by a mostly understanding community. If Mary emerged in our midst now with her stories would our community embrace her? Would we embrace her? Humbling to consider. And that helps give me a portal to step into the Advent spirit.

  • Greg

    Thanks for this piece. I’m in my first year as a lay minister, and I’ve been struggling with this issue more than ever. I feel as though my family and I have made real efforts in moving away from a consumerist-centered Christmas and into intentionally focusing on Advent.
    All the while, our family’s Latin American culture makes the lights, the tree, the villacicos (carols), etc., an important part of the season. So I’ve had this same conflict.
    And I’ve come to a similar conclusion as you have Jose. I enjoy these things, but temper them by reflecting on the faith of Mary and Joseph and what we are doing to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. My ministry is focused on social justice and outreach, so I tell members of our parish that the “gifts” we should giving in Advent (well really always) are fighting for the poor, the marginalized and the most vulnerable among us…not an xbox, a lexus, etc. After all, when we do this, we are doing it for Christ.
    So the way I look at it, for me Advent is a time for me to really think about how I’m doing this (and actually do it!), but at the same time enjoying the lights and the music that puts joy in my heart while I’m working for justice and peace for my sisters and brothers.

  • Megan

    I have to say, trying to explain Christmas to my toddler has made me live Advent much more intentionally this year. It also challenges me to think carefully about what the holiday really means. I mean, what do I say when she asks, “Is Santa Claus going to bring Jesus a puppy for his birthday?” Umm…. ! And waiting is SO hard for her that Advent’s “waiting time” has become a really big thing in our house. “No, we can’t light ALL the candles yet — just two.” “No, you can’t look inside the next part of your Advent calendar yet — just today’s.” The message of wait, wait, wait, be patient, is a hard one for a two-year-old, but it’s also hard for us. For those of us who’d like to see God’s Kin-dom get BUILT already (’cause the way things are around the world is definitely not “as it is in heaven”), Advent tells us “wait, wait, be patient” but also challenges us, “okay, get to work!”

  • Patrick

    I’ve been saying the same thing!

  • Mary W

    LOVE this article! Thank you for sharing this reflection with us and reminding us to really put ourselves into the Nativity story :)

  • Wanda

    I agree with Joe – sounds to me like you are doing pretty good at living Advent intentionally.
    Hearing/reading the Christmas story all my life, I think my little mind takes it on faith that Mary & Jseph were better than your average human, so they didn’t encounter the human feelings of grumpiness and discomfort. You have given me things to think about in my quest to live Advent intentionally. Thank you!

  • Joe F

    “I still don’t know what the Advent spirit is supposed to feel like.”

    I would say that you have answered your own question…

    “actually figuring out how we can be Christmas for each other.”

    Grace and peace…

  • Eva Lyons

    Amen! I’m probably twice as old as you, which only means I’ve had a lot longer to worry and obsess over whether it really is okay to play carols and put up Christmas decorations during Advent. Here’s where I am with all of that this year: Advent is less about the “what” than about the “how.” We are a sacramental, sensory people – some of us need to see the lights, hear the carols and smell the cookies baking to get us moving on the task of preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ. So if we are decorating or singing or baking or whatever, with love, and with the knowledge that the best is yet to come, then we are celebrating Advent intentionally.

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