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Pastor’s Message: July 17, 2020

A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: Advent in July

This has been a particularly difficult week for many people, which is saying something, given the challenges of an average week these past few months. The recent resurgence of the virus throughout most of the country has been disconcerting, particularly since those increases have not been limited simply to the states that have been the most lax in taking action to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus.

Many states, including Pennsylvania, have re-imposed restrictions that had been relaxed just a few weeks ago, and the current debate seems to be whether we have entered the “second wave” of the pandemic anticipated by many, or are simply caught in the undertow of the first wave.

Added to this has been an increasingly challenging national conversation around the question of what schooling should look like in the fall, in light of the pandemic. Students, parents, teachers, and staff are all feeling like pawns in a game that someone else is playing, where the rules keep changing and all the visible moves seem bad.

As I was thinking about all this and how it might inform the sermon this coming Sunday, I came across an article suggesting that we reclaim the tradition of “Christmas in July” this summer, arguing that we could all use an extra dose of cheer these days.

What actually caught my attention was that this is, in fact, a real tradition in the United States. I always thought it was just a marketing gimmick to get people to buy things when retail sales are sagging in the middle of summer with everyone on vacation. But apparently it began as a real celebration of Christmas, with trees and presents and everything, at a camp in the mountains of western North Carolina in 1940.

It spread as a practice during the war, and churches even got in on it, holding Christmas services and everything. By the early 1950s, the advertisers had decided to capitalize on it as they do in December, and that’s where the whole tradition of the sales came from.

I started thinking, hey, maybe this would be kind of fun. There were suggestions for putting a summer slant on traditional Christmas foods and decorations (Santa in board shorts, ice cream sandwich Christmas cookies, etc.). They lost me when they got to “bring out the Elf on a Shelf again,” though; personally, I think that’s annoying and stressful enough for one month a year already!

That also made me realize, though, that what we need right now is not forced cheer. Now, a “Christmas in July” celebration might be something that’s innately fun and energizing for you, and if so, go for it! But if it feels more like a chemistry experiment to try and cause a particular reaction instead of a garden that you want to plant and enjoy for itself, I wouldn’t recommend it.

In any case, it did make me think that perhaps we could all use a little “Advent in July.” Advent is a season that we usually struggle to hold onto because we are so eager for the celebrations of Christmas to arrive. But Advent has a beauty and power and meaning all its own, and which is particularly well-suited to where we find ourselves now.

So, this Sunday, we are going to consider what “Advent in July” might mean for us this year. To help get in the mood, consider finding something purple that you can have with you in digital worship from home. Purple, of course, is the color associated with Advent, so you could get some purple clothing or a coffee mug or a tablecloth or whatever it might be.

If you can, take a picture and post it as a Facebook comment at the beginning of the service on Sunday or, if that’s a challenge for you (or you’re watching on the website livestream or listening by phone), email it to info@fpc-bethlehem.org and we will post it for you.

That said, if what you really need to do is simply show up in worship on Sunday, then just do that, and I look forward to being with you again!

Grace and Peace,
JC

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