My longstanding default concept of the season of Advent has been a “time of preparation,” when both the material activities and the spiritual reflections focus on the coming gift of Christmas and all that it means for our faith orientation to life.
This year’s Advent is different in many ways; the normal patterns of preparation have given way to modified activities and plans that take into account the presence of this year’s very unwelcome guest of a pandemic.
Another feature of this year’s Advent is the national climate that has surrounded the season of political transition brought about by the recent election. It has become clear we are a divided people, judging from the public voices that dominate the media stage.
In addition, the more personal voices that respond to that division on the pages of social media reflect its intensity and passion, as persons choose to exercise their First Amendment rights to give expression of their allegiance to one side or another in the larger debate.
Observers have noted we seem to have a “two planet” pattern of understanding what reality is, with the two profiles quite inconsistent with each other. Each understanding holds tenaciously to the “facts” that support it; the correspondence of those facts with what can be shown to be true seems to be a secondary concern.
Voices with equal confidence espouse alternate views of reality that are quite incompatible with each other, each based on facts (or “alternative facts”) that are claimed as “obvious to everyone.”
This dichotomy of understanding is not new, as our reviews of history easily demonstrate.
Understandings of the causes and issues of the Civil War, of the nature of the path toward a “more perfect union” and of the applications of the concept of justice illustrate that many ideological “forks in the road” invite commitment to one direction or another.
What seems to be different in the current context is that technologically enhanced communication has provided a wider and more readily available platform for the propagations of alternate realities, with the quasi-legitimacy of “having been published” to lend them credibility.
This means that a conspiracy theory can claim an equal place on the shelf in the marketplace of ideas alongside an understanding that has time-honored consistency with a community’s more foundational principles.
Still, it is not a new thing to note we are always surrounded with a multitude of voices that call us to embrace what they are “selling.”
It may be a product to buy, a medication to “ask your doctor about,” a lifestyle to aspire to or a cause to support. It would be hard to count the number of those voices or the areas of life they speak to.
This brings me to the suggestion that Advent, particularly this year, presents us with an invitation not only to prepare for the celebration of all that Christmas means, but also to choose among the voices that call for our attention and our allegiance.
Especially this year, our national community is confronted with a choice between two ways of understanding who we are as a people and two ways of seeing our move toward a future.
Part of that choice has been made collectively in the election, with a second part of the choice still to come in Georgia’s Senate run-off in January.
Beyond that significant choice, there lies the more divisive dichotomy of the divided public mind between those who see the election as a legitimate expression of the democratic process and those who insist that it is a fraud.
This division will not go away with the formality of an election’s outcome. It will continue to thrive as long as it is being fed, and there seem to be many willing feeders.
This has led me to see this year’s Advent as a time of choosing. We don’t have much choice about the number of voices that are out there calling for our loyalty and allegiance, but we do have a choice about which ones we listen to.
It seems to be pretty clear the message of Christmas has some guidance for our preparations for its celebration. Its guidance also seems clear about our choosing.
The first Christmas occurred in a part of the world divided between an empire’s power and a covenant religion’s commitment to justice, especially for the poor, the stranger and the marginalized.
The imagery of its portrayal suggests the unexpected presence of God in a humble setting (manger), experienced by folks on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum (shepherds), finding acceptance from foreigners (magi) and threatening the local power manager (Herod).
Is there some nudging for an Advent “reality choice” here?
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).