Thursday, December 05, 2013

Advent of a different sort

Today’s coffee: Tokumitsu Christmas blend…

…but it’s not Christmas yet. It’s advent. Good coffee though.

Back when we were at Regent College, we took Advent very seriously. We lit our advent wreath every night at supper while singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (except that I used the spelling closed to the Hebrew transliteration: Immanuel); when planning worship services during my internship at First Christian Reformed, I remember arguing with our pastor, a Regent graduate who was himself an advocate of Advent, about whether or not we should sing any Christmas songs before it was actually Christmas. I wanted to drag out the waiting to the last possible second, to make the resolution even more spectacular. Maybe I was a bit over the top, having newly discovered that actually it was okay to express our grief and even our anger before God.

Then I graduated from Regent, and I found that the world is a complicated place full of people who are not Regent graduates. This is of course not a bad thing, but others might not share my views on Advent.

4 ½ years after graduation, here we are in Japan. Our advent wreath is on the table, and we sing O Come O Come Emmanuel every night and read Advent passages from the Bible, but actually we don’t have any candles. We ran out last year, and it’s nearly impossible to get taper candles in Japan… we looked in about 4 different stores on Monday, and all we could find were candles for Buddhist altars. We finally found tea lights at a 100 yen shop. The taper candles we ordered on the internet are scheduled to be delivered sometime in the middle of week 2. We'll try again next year.

If I go on an Advent rant among friends here, they might look at me a bit strangely. They might not know the tune of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” or other songs we sang at Regent. They might think those lengthwise half-sheets of paper with a service order printed on them look a little funny… and actually, printed on A4 rather than Letter sized paper, they do look a little wonky. That last example, unless you actually went to Regent, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about… but yesterday Keith led a worship session for our OMF year-end day of prayer—the Regent-styled half-sheets were nostalgic to us and to the two of our colleagues who are also our senpai from Regent. (And I got my high-church fix. Ahhhh…)

Yes, the world is a complicated place. Let me explain how Christmas works in Japan. I’ve probably written about this before, but I’ll refresh your memory.

Similarly to other places in the world, Christmas decorations show up in stores sometime around the beginning of November. Around the end of November, we start hearing Christmas music. (Somehow the fact that sacred Christmas carols, rather than some pop-star’s recent inventions, are playing IN PUBLIC gives me a bit of a thrill...) Around that time, at our local KFC, the Colonel Sanders statue will be wearing a Santa suit.

At church, we’ve already been planning our Christmas events for months. During December, Japanese people seem to be more interested than usual in Christianity, or at least in Christmas. Some people are curious about traditions in other countries, or perhaps they like the pretty decorations and the music. In any case, the churches in Japan go into overdrive mode. Our church has a total of 6 Christmas events for various groups: women’s wreath-making event, tree decorating and movie for the youth group, children’s and youth parties at church, Christmas meal and concert, and Christmas Eve candlelight service. Of course there are other events going on as various church members hold private celebrations with family and friends.

For non-Christian Japanese, Christmas Eve is the big day. You might spend the evening with friends eating KFC (yes, really) and fluffy cake with strawberries, or you might go on a fabulous date with your lover. By Christmas Day, the decorations are taken down to prepare for Oshougatsu (New Year’s, celebrated with the Western world on January 1), which is possibly the most important holiday in Japan.

The weird thing is, in the middle of all the Christmas decorations and planning and celebrations going on all around, my heart is still in Advent—I’m waiting to celebrate and rest, and I’m waiting to see God work in my life and in the lives of those around me.

Last year at this time, I was struggling to find time for studying, practicing cello, and planning and performing concerts. We put up our very first Christmas tree (plastic, purchased at Costco) in mid-November as a “fun break from studying.” I was desperate to graduate—I bought my graduation hakama (a kind of skirt worn over a kimono for graduation) and put it where I could see it as a reminder that the end of language school was in sight. God would get us through somehow.

I think our Christmas tree and my hakama were important visual reminders of what was to come. After all the concerts were over, I would sit in the kotatsu with a basket of mikan and a mug of hot tea while Keith and I opened our presents together. In February, we would finish language school and move on to the training and work we were eager to do.

This year I’m not nearly as busy, but visual reminders of our anticipation of God’s provision are still helpful: the Christmas tree with presents underneath, the fruit cake in the pantry, even the fat birds eating seeds off the trees in our front yard. God has gotten us through difficult and busy times before, and he will continue to provide for all our needs, including the world’s need for a saviour. He has heard and answered my heart’s desire to be close to him.

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