Less than a billion people live in the southern hemisphere. Only something like 12% of the global population live in the lower half of the globe. Perhaps that is partly behind the dominance of northern hemispheric images for Christmas. Here in Sydney, Australia, the typical Midwestern snow-covered Spruce tree is the standard image for Christmas. I saw snow globes with caroling snowmen for sale in the post office.
It’s strange to see the imagery of a Midwestern Christmas so far from home. It’s especially odd because the reindeer ornaments share an aisle with grilling tools on sale for the start of summer. The weather is beginning to creep into the eighties here, and school is wrapping up for summer break. I heard “It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas” playing in a grocery store while the aisles feature popsicles and spritzers. The Advent moment has all the energy of mid-June graduation season and Christmas break mashed into a four-week stretch.
The season of Advent brings longer days in Sydney. How does a song like “In the bleak midwinter” shape our understanding of the birth narrative and the incarnation? How would a song that started, “In the sweltering heat of summer” lead us to reflect differently on the birth? I have found myself wondering how the liturgical calendar would be different if the global south had arranged the dates. It feels wrong not to be drenched in darkness for the first Sunday of Advent. Nearly every Advent resource I brought with me is titled something like Plunged into Darkness or Living in the Shadows or something like that.
In Chicago, I embraced the liturgical calendar as a way of coping with the change in seasons. Lent always provided spiritual structure to my impatience with spring’s delay. The darkness and cold of December were okay because they helped me lament and long for the joy of Christmas. Advent was headlights in the dark at 4pm. Hunched shoulders marching through a season of longing, looking for light. The liturgical and meteorological calendars shake hands at Advent.
“It might have to do more work here, but Advent still gives voice to the restless, captive, and broken parts in all of us.”
In Sydney, and most of the southern hemisphere, spring has crescendoed into full blown summer for Christmas. Not only are the seasonal signposts of Advent gone, they’re replaced by summer. Does the inversion of the seasons change the meaning of the liturgical season? I can’t find anything substantial on the topic. When I began writing this article, my answer was yes. Whether it should or not, Advent simply feels different here. Joy is more quickly on the lips because of summer’s enticing freedom. Bleak Midwinter is replaced with sweltering summer and that has to matter. But as I pay closer attention to myself and to my new congregation, it becomes apparent that summer can only partially disguise the Advent themes of despair and unmet longing that each of us brings into the Christmas season. It might have to do more work here, but Advent still gives voice to the restless, captive, and broken parts in all of us.
The other thing that is the same in Sydney—where I am now—and back in Chicago—where I have come from—is that everyone is too busy to notice Advent happening around them. Here there are beach trips and end of school festivities mixed in with family Christmas. In the U.S. there is shopping, holiday events and the school work that needs to get finished before any relaxation can happen.
In the rush of summer and the chaos of the impending holidays, Advent is an afterthought. This year more than ever, I’ve felt that Advent doesn’t belong. Every Santa sweating through a fur coat and every melting snowflake window decal is a reminder of this quintessential Christmas truth: none of it belongs.
The virgin conceives. There is no space for her, and so the king is born into a cow’s feeding thing. The mangy shepherds become royal heralds. Something divine happens in a world where most of the time everything feels material. He comes to his own, but his own despise him.
The wonder of Advent is that the hope, peace, joy, and love of the incarnation show up though they aren’t invited. And they remain with us, though they have been shown the door time and time and time again. The Christ child doesn’t have a place in this preoccupied world. And still, he comes. Christmas doesn’t feel at home here to me. And maybe that’s the point.