by Anna Heetderks
The “Christmas Season” practically begins before the trees have had a chance to shed their summer leaves. Food in unnatural shades of red and green starts popping up on grocery store shelves alongside discount Halloween candy, the strains of “All I Want for Christmas is You” begin once again to worm their way into the brains of even the most resistant, and jingle bells provide a soundtrack to car commercials featuring midsize SUVs adorned with large bows. Celebrate now! the whole of our commercialized holiday culture urges. Why wait until an arbitrary date on the calendar?
Amidst all this celebration, the concept of Advent may appear to be a bit of a downer. Traditionally a penitential season, it invites us to pull ourselves out of the stream of sparkling lights and jingle bells and seasonal Starbucks concoctions and into the darkness of waiting and watching. Even to Christians, this may sound a little silly and unnecessary. Jesus is the reason for the season, so we of all people should be celebrating, right? We already know the story, why would we rewind several thousand years and choose to sit on the sidelines in the dark while everyone else parties? Advent’s purpose, however, is not just to beckon us into the past. It also reminds us of our present situation in the world. We too, wait for Jesus’s coming. Advent invites us to consider this, to intentionally enter into the darkness and to remember that we still live in it.
In this vein, some see Advent as diametrically opposed to the Christmas Season. Christmas in our culture is a time of excess, from the preponderance of sugary foods to the rampant consumerism that has hijacked the practice of gift-giving. Advent, in contrast, is stripped-back and sparse, scorning excess and self-indulgence for solemnity and quiet preparation. For some Christians, appropriately observing Advent involves separating oneself entirely from the Christmas Season and abstaining from the pleasures and excesses of the holidays. This may mean waiting until Christmas Eve to put up the Christmas tree, or even fasting for the whole season of Advent. In this view, the Christmas Season and Advent are incompatible. One urges constant celebration and instant gratification, the other calls us away from the revelry into somber preparation and patient waiting,
On the other hand stands a view of Advent that erases any tension between it and the Christmas Season at all. During research for this piece (i.e. Googling “advent”), I came across an article in Vox confidently titled “Advent, Explained,” which matter-of-factly states in the second paragraph that Advent has become “a marketing opportunity for retailers, mostly through Advent calendars.”  This single line pretty much sums up the popular view of Advent: a welcome addition to seasonal consumerist culture, a countdown to Christmas, just another part of the season.
But I think both of these views of Advent fail to fully grasp its meaning and significance. The few weeks’ space shared by Advent and the Christmas Season is representative of our time and place in the grand scheme of things. Christ has come, but we wait for Him to come again. The world is dark with sin and evil, yet reminders of God’s presence shine out like twinkle lights on a dark December night. We are called not to sit in the darkness but to wait with joy and anticipation. The tension between Advent and the celebration of Christmas exemplifies the “already and the not yet,” and the motifs and images of the season serve as constant reminders of this tension.
It’s the jingly cheeriness of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and the dark, ancient tones of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”
Already. . . not yet
It’s the glow of a nighttime fire bathing the room in warm light even as sharp winter winds whip through the bare trees outside.
Already. . . not yet.
It can be uncomfortable, but we should welcome this seasonal push-and-pull, because it is emblematic of the constant tension in our already-redeemed-but-not-yet-renewed world that we don’t tend to often stop and consider.
Henri Nouwen, in a meditation on waiting on God, writes, “Waiting patiently. . . is an active waiting in which we live the present moment to the full in order to find there the signs of the One we are waiting for.”  We wait well by living the present moment to the full. This is how the tension between Christmas and Advent is resolved. In this paradoxical paradigm of waiting, celebrating Advent doesn’t have to mean forgoing the joys of the season; rather the celebration around us reminds us of for what we wait. And central to Christianity is the idea that celebrating what has come while simultaneously watching and waiting for what has not are by no means incompatible.
Nouwen again: “Waiting patiently always means paying attention to what is happening right before our eyes and seeing there the first rays of God’s glorious coming.” This is the essence of Advent. We watch and wait, yes, but in the midst of it we seek out and bask in those rays. And what brighter rays of God’s coming are there than reminders that God has already come?
So let us go forth into these next few weeks and embrace the tension. Eat cookies, sing along to Mariah Carey, put up decorations, celebrate the already. And take time to sit quietly in the dark, pay attention to the cold night, repent and prepare for Emmanuel’s coming, and remember the not yet.
Anna Heetderks is a third year at the University of Virginia studying Foreign Affairs.
 Alissa Wilkinson, “Advent, Explained,” December 1, 2020, https://www.vox.com/culture/21805198/advent-explained-wreath-calendar-season-nazi-christmas-catholic.
 Henri Nouwen, “Waiting with Patience,” in Bread for the Journey (HarperCollins, 1997), https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/waiting-with-patience/.