A Secular Age and the Nature of Advent

... while we may all hope for comfort and joy with family, the festive season can also leave us feeling stretched - a recent survey found that Britons consider this the most stressful time of the year ... From office parties and school plays to gift-giving, it can all get a bit overwhelming.  So this year, we think it's time to relax and refocus on the good things that surround us rather than feeling guilty about the things we haven't done.

So says the Christmas edition of the magazine of supermarket chain Tesco.  The article continues by encouraging us to "choose the one thing that really matters and invest your time in that".

Yes, it does read like a secular appeal for, well, Advent.

On Unherd, an even more explicitly secular - "I'm not religious", the author assures us - appeal for Advent can be found:

What an age we live in. Our culture has subverted and corrupted a festival – Advent – about patient waiting and anticipation. It’s turned it into one that involves indulging ourselves into a coma of mindless consumption the moment we lift our heads from the pillow ... Don’t find your pleasure in fleeting, throwable indulgence. Find it in waiting for the joy to grow.

Even the New York Times has turned its attention towards Advent:

We need communal rhythms that make deliberate space for both grief and joy. For me, the old saying rings true: Hunger is the best condiment. Abstaining, for a moment, from the clamor of compulsive jollification, and instead leaning into the reality of human tragedy and of my own need and brokenness, allows my experience of glory at Christmastime to feel not only more emotionally sustainable but also more vivid, vital and cherished.

While the article in question has no claim to be secular (the author is a priest in ACNA), the positive response of secular readers in the comments is interesting:

Although I don't attend church anymore, and don't really remember much about Advent from when I did, as a child, I found this essay moving.

I wasn’t raised in a particular religious tradition ... So thank you ... for introducing me to Advent, a concept I feel intuitively but now can explore intellectually and perhaps spiritually. 

Thank you for this poetic op-ed. As a former Catholic, now an atheist, I appreciate its sentiments as they reflect our secular existence especially.

What all this suggests is that rather than sensitive encouragement to observe Advent being an unwelcome, awkward, and unrealistic intrusion, it clearly has resonance in a culture that is aware of the costs of an unbalanced approach to the festive season.

In other words, we see here something of the wisdom of Advent.  In his defence of the Church's seasons of fasting and abstinence, Richard Hooker noted that "the matching of contrary things is a kind of illustration to both" (LEP V.72.1): feast and fast belong together.  He continues by recognising how feast and fast reflect our experiences of both grief and joy:

Our life is a mixture of good with evil.  When we are partakers of good things we joy, neither can we but grieve at the contrary (V.72.2).

With abstinence and fasting means of calling us to "heavenlier and better desires", there is - a key category for Hooker - a 'natural' wisdom to their use:

In which sequestration ... higher cogitations do naturally drown and bury all inferior cares ... These being in nature the first causes that induce fasting (V.72.2 & 72.5).

This 'natural' wisdom also ensures a balance to our festivity, that it does not become, in the words of the Unherd article, "mindless consumption".  As Hooker states:

it seemeth that fasts have been set as the ushers of festival days for prevention of those disorders as much as might be wherein notwithstanding the world always will deserve, as it hath done, blame, because such evils being not possible to be rooted out the most we can do is in keeping them low ... to undermine the palaces of wantonness (V.72.18).

Such a Hookerian understanding draws the Church away from two mistaken approaches to Advent.  The first is to abandon Advent is an irrelevance and to simply make peace with the reality that the festive season starts in late November.  This, however, fails (somewhat ironically for Advent) to read the signs of the times, and the cultural voices seeking the Advent experience of waiting.  When secular voices such as the Unherd article urge a greater place for abstinence in our approach to Christmas, the Church should not be embarrassed about sharing the practice of Advent:

Don’t find your pleasure in fleeting, throwable indulgence. Find it in waiting for the joy to grow.

The second mistake is to present Advent as a counter-cultural sectarian strategy, a means of preserving ecclesial identity over and against a culture defined by commercial excess at this season.  Again this fails to read the signs of the times.  In fact, this too is a de facto making of peace with the culture's commercial excess, as long as the Church isn't singing carols or displaying Christmas Trees during Advent.  Both approaches leave the culture untouched, exhausted, cynical, and tired by prevailing expectations concerning Christmas.

And both approaches fail to recognise what Hooker perceived: the 'natural' wisdom in fast preceding feast, reflecting our human experience, and enriching "the most natural testimonies of our rejoicing" in festivity (V.70.2).  "Nature", Hooker affirms, "is the general root of both" fasting and festivity (V.72.15).  It should not, then, surprise the Church that when the practice of Advent is meaningfully, sensitively shared, it resonates with the culture.

No, it will not automatically make disciples of secular consumers.  It does, however, have the potential through experience of quietness, abstinence, and waiting to open the culture to the God of the Advent and the Incarnation, through whose coming "the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose".

Update 6th December Malcolm Guite's Poet's Corner column in the Church Times this week interestingly detects similar cultural movement: "But, maybe, things are changing. I sense a reaction coming. I sense a yearning for Advent again, for the fast before the feast".


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