Judging by our December practices, no, it’s not

“Anticipation, anticipation is making me late, is keeping me waiting …”

Carole King might have been talking about the Christmas season we are heading into. In the Christian tradition, Advent is the worship season that leads into Christmas. Advent is a season of waiting, of longing for what is promised.

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People once kept better time by a spiritual calendar. Christmas began on Christmas Day. They trimmed their trees on Christmas Eve, drank their eggnog and read the Christmas story. Then children went to bed with anticipation, “while visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads.” Christmas lasts 12 days on the true liturgical calendar, beginning with December 25 and ending on January 5, just before Epiphany (the Magi) on January 6. But who knows that today? Who observes that? Even more, who cares? Nowadays, we have flipped the “Twelve Days of Christmas” — complete with true loves and turtledoves — to the 12 days leading up to Christmas. It’s become a secret elf-like tradition. But why?

Because we can’t wait. We have become accustomed to having things right now. And, of course, marketers and merchandizers have made gift giving-and-receiving the heart of the season. That’s not all bad if we tie our giving and receiving to the spiritual self-giving of God to the world out of love that Christmas represents. Mostly, we don’t.

Remember layaway? (Unless you are Medicare age, you probably don’t.) Before the advent of credit cards that allow you to buy something now and pay it off later, department stores permitted you to select an item, have them set it aside for you, and then you could pay it off in installments for weeks or months until you had enough to get the item and take it home. Layaways built anticipation and added a sense of the value of the thing you were working for.

Our Christmas spirituality often falls victim to our instant gratification, consumer culture. We’ve gone from layaway to credit, and not wholly to our credit. The financial cost of living in a credit culture is great, but the spiritual loss should be counted, too. We have lost the anticipation that a season of prayer played in making our souls ready to receive anew the greatest gift of all from God.

Fasting precedes feasting in the healthy spiritual heart, although both must always be present to experience the full range of relationship to God. Sorrow and joy, penitence and presence, anticipation and celebration: these pairings are the warp and woof of authentic spirituality. And that is true for Jews and Muslims and people of other faiths, too, each their own contexts.

Putting the genie back in the bottle is hardly possible (probably the wrong metaphor there), but putting the child back in the manger is. It takes imagination and intention, a faith that waits and a promise worth waiting for. A more disciplined season of delaying spiritual gratification for the greater good of our souls will spill over into a holier experience of the life of faith.

George Mason is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church. The Worship section is underwritten by Advocate Publishing and the neighborhood businesses and churches listed here. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.