Oh how weary is the world, in these final weeks of a long, brutal, confusing year. But Advent is here. Jesus is coming back. And for this thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
I’m sitting here looking at the Christmas tree in our room, a 7-foot Noble Fir, still aromatic and alive, glistening with lights and glittery ornaments. Part forest and part carnival, a natural and cultural creation, it stands as a shy but stately symbol of so much more than just holiday cheer. Its triangular, evergreen shape and prickly, shedding branches tell a much bigger story.
I love the season of Advent for a lot of reasons, not least the way it embraces the messiness of existence in a manner appropriate to the chaos of the month in which it falls.
But today I've been thinking about the way that Advent forces us to reflect on time in a unique way, in both looking back and looking forward, remembrance and imagination of times past and times to come. The fact that today is my birthday aids in my reflection. Birthdays are steps out of time in a weird way, "just another day" but also not. They are 24 hours long just like any day, but they hold a disproportionate place in our memories and our hopes. They are kairosmoments (as opposed to chronos), and as such they remind us that time is less mundane and more miraculous than we often give it credit.
Oh Jesus- You who took on flesh- Becoming one of us, Knowing our aches and pains, Feeling our pangs and longings, Suffering and lamenting like we do. You didn't have to do that. But you did. In our dark night you are the light that dawns. In our sin and shame you are the arms open wide. Guilty and damned we were, Hopeless and driftless and weary, Until you came. Gloria in Excelsis Deo
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we could remember as far back as the moment of our birth—that slimy, turbulent transition from the comfort of a warm, dark womb into the unkind cold, harsh bright light of life outside. What emotions, thoughts, hopes, and fears would accompany such a memory? As it is, I can only remember about 27 of my 30 years... my memories begin around age three. When Jesus turned 30, could he recall the moment of his own birth? That epic, heavenly-hosts-rejoicing mystery in which God incarnate dwelled within a teenage girl's womb one minute, and cried and breathed in Bethlehem air the next? Was his memory God-like and infinite, or was it as limited as mine, recalling only shadows and bursts of nascent consciousness from his earliest years?
The goodness of the world—the “all is not lost,” salvageable beauty of it—is legitimated in the God-made-flesh moment of Christmas. In that epoch of history, the climax of so many centuries of hopes and fears and expectations, heaven literally came down to earth and took up residence within it. A new kingdom began—physical, tangible, unexpected. Christmas is the celebration of life as it can be lived in the light of that very real hope, in the knowledge that, though we will have trouble, we should take heart because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33).
When most people think of movies for December/Christmas, they think Frank Capra, Christmas Vacation or Home Alone. Which are all great. But the season of Advent is not just about twinkling lights, feel-good family reunions, and Macaulay Culkin-burns-Joe-Pesci's-head gags. It's also about feeling the tension of waiting... for redemption, for justice, for the renewal of all things. It's about waiting with anticipation for better days, knowing they are coming because God became man and paved a way.
Why are rituals such a blessing? Why are they so comforting? Why—after spending 10 days seeing amazing things on another continent—was I so excited to return to the routine rhythms and rituals of my "normal" life back home? Why am I confident that some day, I will go to bed at the same time every night, have the same breakfast cereal every day while watching the same morning show, and love every minute of it?
The Christmas Eve candlelight services are more than just a nice symbolic act of remembrance, however. They are the continuation of a biblical tradition of likening Christ to images of light and darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” wrote the prophet Isaiah (9:2). “On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”
Yesterday I read this Newsweek article that attempts to debunk the apparently misguided biblical argument against gay marriage. I will say nothing more about it, except that the article hammered home one major point: Christianity and the Bible are frightfully misunderstood.
Though Thanksgiving is not a part of the liturgical season of Advent, I think it fits perfectly as segue or entry point into this period of the church calendar.
One of my favorite Christmas traditions has always been the Christmas Eve candlelight service. As a child I probably liked it most for the getting-to-light-a-candle aspect (who doesn’t like playing with fire and wax?), though even then I felt the mystical power of seeing one light pierce the darkness and gradually begin to spread throughout the congregation, illuminating and warming the church sanctuary. It was a marvel to behold, especially when—as “Silent Night” or “Oh Holy Night” echoed throughout the candlelit room—I began to fathom the symbolic significance of the whole activity. It was the image of a world-changing light that spread everywhere from one humble little plastic-cup-encased white wax candle. The Incarnation.