The advent calendar was designed as a spiritual discipline to help Christians prepare for the coming of Christ. But designer versions, or ones filled with expensive gifts, alcohol and even sex toys, are instead turning them into a platform for vice and excess, says Dr Gavin Ashenden
It ought to be a case of once bitten twice shy, but there are always risks attached to bearing witness to Jesus in the public square.
Last Lent I was approached by a Daily Telegraph journalist to give an opinion on how hot cross buns, traditionally associated with Easter, were being turned from simple comestibles into full fat treats, stuffed with every kind of chocolate and additional sweet fillings.
I gave into the temptation of trying to explain spiritual and metaphysical concerns to the journalist, and made the mistake of quoting St Anselm. It was a step too far. As I tried to explain that the symbol of the cross was sacred and therefore any kind of subversion of its importance might become a kind of perversion, “the devil” appeared in Anselm’s explanation - and so in mine. I soon found myself not only carelessly misquoted in The Telegraph but on the front page of The Daily Star next to a cartoon of Satan himself.
It is not only houses that need spring cleaning, but also minds and souls
So when The Telegraph asked for more theological comment on Advent calendars a few days ago, I wondered if it would be wise. But we can’t bear witness to Jesus by keeping our heads down, and so another article appeared on the misuse of Advent calendars in our secular culture.
In our first conversation, the journalist and I discussed the way in which Advent, and perhaps advent calendars, constituted a spiritual discipline, designed to help us clear the clutter from our lives. But under the influence of secularisation and an uncontrolled market, this has been changed into a consumerism that instead increases our lower appetites.
The idea of Advent - at its very simplest level - is that, if we are going to receive Christ into our hearts afresh at Christmas, then some element of decluttering needs to take place. It is not only houses that need spring cleaning, but also minds and souls.
The coming of Christ is always associated with a springtime of the soul. If we clean house at Christmas, it is partly in order to make space for Christ as we re-evaluate our lives in the light of his birth, his word and his invitation.
It seems theologically interesting that a spiritual discipline intended to capture the Christian imagination, with symbols and stories that prepare us for Jesus coming, has instead become a box of treats to titillate our tongues, mouth and stomachs. That is a long way from its original focus.
Subversion and perversion
In our struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil, we will always find something of each creeping in to subvert our discipleship. The fact that the (rather sweet and inoffensive) spiritual discipline of advent calendars is itself not free from either subversion or perversion is a reminder of how serious and demanding the spiritual struggle really is.
After our first conversation about excess and the subversion of decluttering, the journalist came back to me. After having done some more research, he was astonished that the advent calendar market had not only been infiltrated by excess but by what he described as “vice”. It turns out that pornographers have come into the advent calendar market and are using it to develop their own market of hyper-sexualisation!
To receive Christ into our hearts at Christmas, an element of decluttering needs to take place
Christianity is not just about helping us live better lives and clean up our appetites. It is also about resisting corruption that begins with small things but quickly finds an impetus of its own. To be a Christian and to follow Christ is not only to be improved. It is also to be saved.
Perhaps, in a small way, the advent calendar is a microcosm of our soul. At it’s best, capable of welcoming and housing Jesus, but also vulnerable to misuse and abuse. And without the proper protection and oversight, vulnerable to a takeover which allows it to become a home and a platform not only for excess, but also a great deal more than that.
The journey from virtue to vice is shorter than we would like to imagine.