Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for writing about “religionless Christianity.” It wasn’t that he was walking away from the faith, of course. He only wanted to jettison trappings that did nothing to help people live as citizens of God’s Kingdom, the kind of distracted and dangerous belief that allowed churches to remain open and unmoved while moral atrocities occurred on their doorsteps. In his estimation, a pared-down “religionless” faith required two essentials–prayer and works of righteousness.
This Advent, with my family living in two different states, most of our Advent and Christmas trappings are having a sabbatical year. The tree’s staying in the garage and the ornaments in boxes. I have only limited access to the music I always look forward to, from The Messiah to John Denver and the Muppets. Even the beautiful copper Advent candle stand that my brother made us remains packed away. Though I don’t feel qualified to bring anything to a discussion of religionless Chrisitanity, my circumstances have led me to contemplate the possibility of a sentiment-free Advent and Christmas.
My feelings are mixed as I imagine a year without the three Baby’s 1st Christmas ornaments, various wreath and reindeer ornaments made by little hands, and the original Starship Enterprise ornament, which I received as a seminary graduation present and always hangs in a place of honor easily visible from my favorite reading chair. I’m like the Whos down in Whoville after the Grinch stole everything, including their roast beast. I’m a little bewildered as I look around for the artifacts that have always seemed synonymous with the season. But, like the Whos, I know lack of stuff can’t keep Christmas from coming. Advent has arrived right on schedule and Christmas will, too.
I wonder, though, what a pared-down Advent should look like. If there are no Advent candles or calendars, what must there be in order for the season to leave its mark? When I was in marching band at Baylor, we would always do a pre-game show before home football games. We had to be ready to go as soon as the prayer was said over the loudspeaker. Our instructions were to stay alert. We weren’t to bow our heads. We never knew how long the prayer might last. So we’d stand at attention and whisper to each other: “Pray, pray, pray. Watch, watch, watch.” At the amen we moved into action.
Those whispered reminders strike me as a pretty good motto for Advent: “Pray, pray, pray. Watch, watch, watch.” And while you’re at it, commit a few acts of righteousness.