For a few months in 2003-2004, the Hubble Space Telescope zoomed in on a seemingly blank, small spot in the sky. To the naked eye it looked like a speck of black emptiness. But once developed, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image showed that inside that small, randomly selected patch of sky, over 10,000 galaxies could be seen.
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 was asked by Biola's Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts to pen a Christmas day reflection for the "Advent Project," reflecting in part on Rembrandt's painting, "The Adoration of the Shepherds." Here is part of what I wrote, followed by a prayer:
Advent is a season of light and dark. As much as the media and the prevailing spirit of the season tries to frame Christmastime as an endless array of cheer and merriment, there's no getting around the reality of our dark, treacherous, weary world. But it's better that way. The light shines brighter in the dark. Advent celebrates the moment when true light entered into our dark world. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Is. 9:2).
Christmas has in our culture become associated with all things "cheer," "goodwill," and "merriment": eggnog, Santa Clause, white elephant parties, sparkly sweaters, twinkly lights and tinsel galore. And for good reason. This is a holiday inspired by the coming of the world's salvation in the form of Jesus Christ. Joy to the world indeed. The Incarnation is a reason to take heart, to be joyful, to feel good about life. And yet the Advent season is also unmistakably somber. It has a dark side
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?
It's not about me. I'm just a speck of dust on a tiny grain of sand on a little planet in a medium sized galaxy, which itself is a speck of dust in the scope of the cosmos. And yet, ironically, this is what Jesus appeared to be too, that dark night in the dirty manger so many years ago. Indeed, humility can do great things for the world.
Like Adam before us, and Noah, and Abraham and Israel, followers of Jesus are called to bring light to the darkness; to spread the illumination like in those candle light Christmas Eve services of our youth; or like that little blue candle and mysterious wispy flame in The Tree of Life. It's Ruach. The Spirit of God. Reminding us of hope, empowering us to carry on.
It's December 1st, so therefore officially OK to listen to Christmas music! Below is my Advent playlist for this year's season. You can listen to the whole thing on Spotify here. Enjoy!
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.
Every new day hands us a fresh reminder of the foolishness of hope. The world is falling apart. Wars all around, friends who still can't find work, parents with ailments, babies dying, global warming, leaders who disappoint, bills, DMV lines, broken relationships and bones, and our own debilitating disease of pride. On the good days, when it seems as if we might actually be making a difference in the world, we remember that 90% of our energy and time and thoughts still go toward our own pursuits of pleasure and neurotic concerns.
It's the second week of Advent, 2010, and I've put together a playlist of songs that feel appropriate to this moment. They are songs that represent both the darkness of the world and the power of the penetrating light. They are songs about waiting, hoping, and dwelling in the now-and-not-yet. I'll be listening to them with plenty of hot cider and a hopefully quieted soul, beckoning Emmanuel to come and ransom this captive creation.
In short, Advent is about unresolved and promised hope. A hope that we cling to, even when we’re not quite sure it exists. Waiting is about faith, not certainty—certainty doesn’t require any trust. In Advent, God promises “Christ will come.” Because he already has. And the quiet anticipation changes everything.
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.”
I saw two movies this past weekend—the second weekend of Advent. They were The Messenger (dir. Oren Moverman) and Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman). Both films are winning awards right and left this season, but that’s not the only thing they have in common. Both films focus upon the unfortunate task of bearing bad news.
It’s a cold December night, less than a week from Christmas. The third Friday of Advent, to be exact. In two days, I’m going home. Home to Kansas for the holidays.
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.