As we head into December most people will start to turn their thoughts towards Christmas (though some have already been channelling the Christmas vibe since early November!) For me, the celebrations come early though it has little to do with Christmas. It starts early November with my own birthday which merges into Guy Fawkes Night and closely on its heels is my brother’s birthday. There’s a couple of quieter weeks before we head into Thanksgiving (and by virtue of my American wife this is a big deal!) Then St. Andrew’s Day and on into Advent. Of course, advent is a straight shot into Christmas but my family seem to have a penchant for winter birthdays so early to mid-December we also celebrate my brother and sister-in laws’ birthdays. Only then we can get to Christmas! So every year, once the clocks go back, I look forward into November and December and towards a long season of celebration.
On one of the quieter weekends of November I went to see a production of Dickens’ Great Expectations. Like many of Dickens’ work it is a tale of wealth and poverty, of both money and character. Again common to Dickens is that it is also a tale of transformation. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised then that the opening scene was depicted as taking place on Christmas Eve with the early scenes taking place on Christmas Day. Again common to Dickens is setting a scene around Christmas which, in itself, is surprising given that he was writing at a time still feeling the effects of the Puritan suppression of Christmas. Dickens revived the place of Christmas within the wider culture and is often credited with creating (or at least popularising) many Christmas traditions that still exist to this day. To this day our quintessential Christmas scenes tend to depict a Victorian scene and all the traditions that come with it.
It’s interesting to consider how much seasons and traditions shape our ideas. I have friends in Australia who are thinking whether it will be too warm for the beach on Christmas day and what to cook on the Christmas BBQ which is far removed as we get ready for the cold weather and think about turkey and trimmings (I’m assured this isn’t just an Aussie stereotype – at least for some!) To me the quintessential Christmas doesn’t fit with warm sunny weather and BBQs and yet it’s just my seasonal attachments and cultural traditions that have shaped me to think the perfect Christmas is a white Christmas.
For a moment let me stray into potentially unusual territory – liturgy and ritual. But in straying into this territory let me define the terms using more familiar ideas. Rather than seeing them as practices of churches (and at their worst empty practices) let’s think about liturgy and ritual as season and traditions, or maybe even more familiar language, rhythms and habits. I have the rhythm of my year which determines that November and December are filled with celebration and habits which determine what those celebrations ideally should look like in my eyes. So if rhythm and habits form our ideas what does that look like for us as Christians?
James K. A. Smith offers an interesting perspective of habits as formative practices. To begin with Smith draws upon Augustine to suggest that we are what we love i.e. our motivation for action is rooted in our fundamental love. To paraphrase Augustine, if you want to know why a people do what they do then look at what they love. Smith writes: ‘what’s at interest is not whether a people loves but what that people loves. Augustine is interested in the objects of love that which indicates the “character” of a people (19.24). It is the telos of a people’s love that defines a people.’ Particularly relevant in the lead up to Christmas, Jason Clark shares this sentiment suggesting that consumerism should be read as habits that offer ‘an “embodied imagination,” a story for understanding human nature (anthropology) and human destiny (telos), a story that we organise our lives around.’ I think we can hear similar ideas in Psalm 115:8 where those who make and worship idols will become like them. Similarly in Philippians 4 we’re told to focus our thoughts on noble, admirable, excellent things and then put them into practice. How we are orientated as individuals and communities will determine the way it forms its members. So our “goal” shapes our habits but our habits communicate to the world what we’re about. Therefore, in Smith’s language it is the ‘habit-forming practices in which we participate . . . that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world.’ This ‘way of life’ is a question not of ‘whether we engage in common life but how.’
One of the habits that the Christian can engage in is that of worship.
‘The formation of our social imaginary in Christian worship equips us for an active discernment, the engaged wisdom and prudence that enables us to see openings for participation, collaboration, and critique within the wider contested spaces.’
We worship God as our first love, but worship is also a formative habit that equips us for all aspects of life beyond the walls of a church. Smith’s overarching approach is that worship which transforms is, at its most basic, participative. It is worship where worshippers are invited to explore their embodiedness, utilising their senses and ‘reaches, touches, and transforms even those who cannot grasp theological abstractions.’ Smith describes this as the true goal of worship – ‘the physical, material stuff of creation and embodiment is the means by which God’s grace meets us and gets hold of us.’ The practice of worship then, at its best, is not a passive reception of information or a form of entertainment but the active and embodied participation in the life of the Church and in the love of God. Our habits of worship are habituating us towards a Christ-likeness who, in representing God’s love to the world, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and loved the unloved. As we participate in the love of God through our acts of worship, it ought to also look like attending to the needs of those around us as Christ did – to feed the hungry, to care for the ill, to comfort the brokenhearted, and to love the unloved.
If we see worship as a kind of habit, then what do we imagine rhythm to look like? Bretherton suggests that a pattern of feasting and fasting relates to the tension between the presence of the indwelling Spirit and Christ’s “absence” prior to His anticipated return.
‘Feasting and fasting correspond to the different aspects of the eschatological tension: we wait for the fulfilment of that hope. There can be no true feasting without fasting: this would be to forget Christ’s absence. Neither can there be true fasting without feasting: this would be to deny the freedom available now through what Christ has done.’
The rhythms of the year invite us to remember both the limitations of the present and the anticipation of a future glory. Feasting reminds us of God’s promised future in all its hope and celebration; but fasting reminds us that we continue to live in the in between world with its suffering and brokenness. Lent precedes Easter; Advent precedes Christmas. In this light they are not ritualistic practices but a way to remember and participate in Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and return. ‘Fasting is a way of embodying the pain of taking up our cross and physically entering into the expectation and longing for the full disclosure of God’s rule.’ Meanwhile feasting is an embodied practice where all sense are engaged ‘“we taste, touch, smell, see, hear.” . . . To be drawn into the messianic feast, anticipated now in the feasting of the church, every area of life and every person must be transfigured.’ This rhythmic sense of feasting and fasting draws our attention to the events of Christ’s life and the anticipated future of our world. Once again to fast and to feast cannot properly be done in a passive manner but fasting and feasting requires us to engage our sense, to feel the hunger and absence but also to taste the goodness of celebration and hope.
And here we can see how habits and rhythms come together. As we are reminded about living in the in between time our acts of worship become the points where, as Christians, we can bring hope and light into darkness. Where we see hunger, brokenness, grief, and hurt, our habits of worship bring the hope of Christ into those situations. In Advent, as we look forward to the feast of Christmas, may it be a time where we are aware of those places where conflict won’t stop for Christmas, where hunger won’t be fed, where grief will not be comforted; and may we also look for opportunities to embody the love of God and so be bearers of comfort and joy within the brokenness.
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media if that’s where you see it!
 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, 51.
 Jason Clark, “Consumer Liturgies and Their Corrosive Effects on Christian Identity,” in Scot McKnight et al., Church in the Present Tense, 43.
 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 25.
 Smith, Awaiting the King, 53.
 Smith, Awaiting the King, 54.
 Smith, Awaiting the King, 96.
 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 136.
 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 141.
 Luke Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness Amid Moral Diversity, 145.
 Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness, 144-145.
 Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness, 144.