Advent isn’t about nostalgia

I spent part of yesterday putting up Christmas lights at home. Putting up the lights was surreal, in part because it was so warm. It didn’t feel like Christmas was ready to come. But there I was, untangling the green plastic wrapped wires, checking that the little L.E.D.s still functioned. Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the season Hopie Jernagen, our preacher last week called “the tailgate before Christmas.” Advent is probably my favorite season in the church year. Partly that is because blue is my favorite color, mostly though, it is that Advent asks us to hold this tension between the already and the not yet. Advent acknowledges that sometimes it just doesn’t feel it could possibly be time for Christmas. Advent invites us to be mindful of how we are preparing.

John the Baptist: God comes where we least expect.

The second Sunday of Advent is when we meet John the Baptist, the great preparer. I admit, I like the versions of the Gospel a bit better when he’s covered in camel fur and eating locusts and wild honey. Luke this morning instead gives us this strange chronology, at least that’s what how they teach you to see this list of names that Chester had to struggle through, Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Philip, Lysanias (if that’s how you pronounce them). I was taught, maybe you were taught, that these names were given because that is how time was kept. Luke is a historian. He cares about dates. The Romans didn’t mark a “year of our Lord 27 A.D.” Jesus wasn’t yet on the radar. Instead time was marked by the important leaders of the day, in the fifteenth year of the rule of Tiberius… That’s what all these names mean right?

But maybe there is more. All the folks named in the first verse of this chapter of Luke would have been recorded in the annals of Rome. Many of them had not just political titles, but religious ones. Remember, the Roman Emperor’s titles included “son of God.” Notice that Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests are mentioned. I find it interesting that after naming all of these supposedly holy men, the Gospel tells us, “the word of God came to John, in the Wilderness.”

It’s as if the Gospel is saying, “the word of God skipped over Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias. The word of God even jumped over the high priests. The word of God went where society would least expect it, to the wilderness, to a bug-eating furry hermit named John.” God shows up where we are not ready to find God.

The trouble with nostalgia

I need that message in Advent. I do. One of the hardest things, I think, for us around religion and holidays is nostalgia. This time of year is chock-full of nostalgia. How many of us measure our Christmas against the ghost of a Christmas past? How many of us want to re-live some memory of Christmas (that maybe wasn’t as good at the time as the way we remember it?) How many of us feel pressure to get a particular recipe just right, to decorate something in just a particular way, to make Christmas feel the way it is supposed to feel, the way we somehow remember it feeling. Nostalgia is powerful, and it can be an awful measuring stick.

The writer Grafton Tanner has called Nostalgia “The defining emotion of our time.” We long for Christmases past. We long for a time before the pandemic, before life got so complicated, before 9/11. There is a particular nostalgia for the 1950s, a nostalgia that has been weaponized in American politics. If it could all just go back to the way things were. Make America Great Again. Build Back Better. You can hear this nostalgia in slogans all over the political spectrum.

Before nostalgia was an emotion, it was a disease. The word “nostalgia” was coined in the 17th century by a Swiss physician. Nostalgia was, for a couple hundred years, thought of as a psychiatric problem. Longing for a time before, longing for home, was a diagnosable illness. Soldiers with profound cases, their longing to leave the battlefield and “go home” so intense, were even reported to have died from nostalgia. Tanner writes that it is only in the 1950s and 60s in America that we start thinking of nostalgia as an emotion with some positive aspects. In those same decades marketing specialists started to figure out how to use nostalgia to sell merchandise.

Nostalgia can be powerful. So this season, I want to invite you, to the degree you can. Lay the nostalgia aside. Do it for the sake of your mental health, for the sake of those around you. Realize this Christmas isn’t going to be like any Christmas before.

Advent as a season isn’t about nostalgia. Yes, there are practices that can bring about the feeling. We love singing particular hymns. We love lighting Advent wreaths, popping chocolates out of calendars. But really that’s not what Advent is about. Listen to the name: Advent. This season is about something new. The Advent season isn’t about fulfilling wooden expectations, but rather about unexpected joy. The Word of God didn’t come to the place the society imagined, to the supposed leaders. The Word of God came to John, in the wilderness.

Friends, for us that is good news. It is. Because we are still in the wilderness.

There are aspects of normalcy developing, sure. We are better off than we were last year, but we are still surviving a pandemic. I don’t have updates for you yet on the omicron variant. We are in a “wait and see” position as a church just like everyone.

Practicing letting go of Nostalgia

I can tell you, even without this latest development, we still can’t plan for a “normal” Christmas. The biggest emblem of that for me is that we won’t have a Christmas pageant this year. We aren’t ready to pack a bunch of kids together for it. We didn’t want to leave younger siblings out because they couldn’t yet be vaccinated. We didn’t want to invite a bunch of aunties and grandparents, because we don’t feel comfortable yet trying to pack the church. Our capacity is limited. So we’ll have a children-centric service at 5pm on Christmas Eve. We will tell the story of Christmas, but it won’t be that special chaos where you’re worried one of the the angels might just start fighting one of the sheep right in front of the altar, and baby Jesus wailing as we sing “no crying he makes.”

You can hear, for me, this nostalgia. There are particular joys I look forward to this time of year, because they invoke memories for me. And yeah, I’m a little disappointed, but I’m trying to take Advent at the invitation to look forward to something new, not to measure it against the memory of something past.

Society writ-large was pretty convinced in the first century, that God’s power was in the hands of Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Annas, Caiaphus, the whole list. But the word of God did something unexpected, showed up in the wilderness, with the wild-man John.

Today we are inviting folks to turn in their pledge cards, if you haven’t already, we’re still hoping to hear from more folks. Sometimes we use nostalgia around the practice of giving. I invite folks to practice what their grandparents practiced, to give because it is a time-honored tradition. If that motivates you, by all means.

But today, I also hope you are challenged to give out of hope for what is to come. I hope that church isn’t just a museum-piece. I hope that church isn’t just something we do to keep an institution going. I hope that church is a place where we can come to try to make a difference today and tomorrow. I know that many of the people who give around here, they invest their hard earned money in a vision of what could be. They trust this church to work for a world that is more equitable and more just.

If you haven’t yet pledged, let me challenge you. Don’t give what you’ve given in the past just to keep things going the way they were. Could you invest with us? Could we practice generosity because we care about our values, because we want more people to know Christ’s Welcome? because we believe intentional diversity, intentional anti-racism, intentional inclusion of women’s leadership and LGBTQ+ equity matter? Could we give like we want this community to grow, and to continue to reach our neighborhood?

Advent hopefully challenges us.

Advent, at its heart, hopefully challenges us. Sure, yes, religion is about how we are tied to the past, how we are tied to those who went before us in faith. But it is about more. Christians believe that God didn’t just come once, a couple thousand years ago. The words of the prophet are as true today as they were back then.

Prepare the way. Every valley shall be filled. Every mountain will be leveled. Equity is coming. Justice is coming. God is coming into our world, into the wilderness places. God is coming in the places you might least expect God to show up. Because that is the only way that ALL humanity, ALL humanity will know God’s salvation.

This Advent, if all the little Christmas lights don’t light up for you, maybe it isn’t a reason to rush out and buy more? If the recipe doesn’t come together, if a tradition doesn’t work with masks and distancing and testing, can that be okay? Could this Advent be about something else? Could Advent be about God showing up in unexpected places? How are you preparing for the world God wants to set free?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Advent isn’t about nostalgia

  1. Dear Mike, your sermon has me mulling over the difference between nostalgia and memory. If I read you correctly, nostalgia is about wanting a return to the “good old days”, many of which were not so good for many people. Memory, on the other hand, I think takes us as individuals back to an earlier time or experience but does not insist on bringing it into the present.
    Example: Several Christmases ago, I was visiting my dad up in the Bay Area and when the choir director heard I was in town, and remembered that I had been in the choir, asked me to sing with the choir for Christmas Eve. At one point in the service, candles were handed out and we were to light them for the singing of one of the hymns. My candle wouldn’t light for love nor money, and it was a bit difficult to hold it and my music at the same time. Naturally, I started giggling, though I tried my best to stop it.
    It turned out to be the last time I sang in that choir, because my dad passed away several months later. On the one hand, I have a fond memory of that Christmas Eve, but I certainly don’t want to have to wrestle again with a stubborn candle.
    Happy Advent, Verdery

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