“Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait. . . . Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger.” -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Advent season is upon us. Although I have observed Christmas my entire life, I think this is the first year I am truly, deliberately celebrating Advent -- Christ’s appearing.
Growing up, I loved the Christmas season. I’m a romantic idealist at heart, and twinkling trees, soft carols, and candlelight services never ceased to be enchanting. I also loved baked goods. But then, somewhere around age 25, everything about it grew rather lackluster. The traditions felt rote, and the significance of the season seemed completely lost, buried underneath endless evergreen lots, store sales, and busy holiday itineraries.
Now before you call me Charlie Brown, I realize this is the stuff Christmas TV movies are made of. A disillusioned protagonist wanders through decorated streets and crowded shopping malls for about 75 minutes, nursing his or her inner angst and taking it out on the otherwise celebratory world. Then someone -- usually a child, but sometimes an angel disguised as a crotchety elderly person -- comes along and helps them remember what Christmas is all about. By the end, they’ve rediscovered their inner child, realized the sacredness of the season, and usually fallen in love. But life is most decidedly not a made for TV Christmas movie, and my inner angst tormented me for quite some time.
I started talking back to the television when yet another car (wrapped in a red bow) commercial or jewelry ad (with a couple kissing in the falling snow) would appear on screen.
“Who do you think you’re fooling?” I’d say. “Nobody’s buying it. Especially not this girl!”
I found myself breaking out in cold sweats in department stores, trapped by shoppers stuffed in big winter coats, weighed down by big shopping bags. Stuck in long, hot checkout lines, crammed between weary, fed-up customers and all our (mostly unnecessary) purchases, I would take deep breaths, keep my eyes on the “exit” sign, and focus on the moment when I could run, gasping, into the cold air waiting just outside the door.
I began seeing the so-called Spirit of Christmas in a new light too. A somewhat troll-ish looking elf with a few gold teeth and a wart on his bulbous nose started haunting my imagination. In need of a shave, with bad breath and grimy fingernails, he slogged along under the weight of a massive, tattered bag.
“Heh, heh, heeeeh. Merry Christmas,” he’d rasp in his gravelly voice.
“Wanna present, kid? Here.’ll give ya a present.” Then he’d pull out a boulder the size of a Buick wrapped in red and green cellophane and strap it to the poor sap’s back. Said sap would totter away, a huge smile on his face, unaware that he was bent in two from the weight of his “treasure,” or that he was sinking further into the snow with every step. From behind him --
“Heh, heh, heeeeh.” The skuzzy spirit watched, taking a long drag on his stogie before trudging on.
I wish I could say I found respite from the swarming crowds and churlish inner demons at church, among devout celebrants gathering in hushed and hallowed adoration . . . but I fear this is where my sentiments went from jaded to downright embittered. For, despite all our talk of celebrating the “true reason for the season” or the “real spirit of Christmas,” I still saw people hurrying, scurrying, barely breathing, and rushing, rushing, always rushing! It felt like a veritable Christmas chorale surrounded me, dancing down the church aisles in fast-forward, wearing shepherd costumes and Santa hats, singing, “There are gifts to buy and cookies to bake! Pageants to practice and parties to plan! Families to visit and Santa to play! This is what makes it a holiday!Christ has come! Oh, what fun!Joy to the wooooooorld!”
Like I said -- embittered. But I couldn’t help it. For 25-plus years I’d heard some variation of the following Christmas sermon: “In the midst of this busy time of year, let us pause . . . and take time . . . to remember Christ.” Piled on top of the mad-dash-materialism and perfunctory practices, the irony of this statement was too much for me to handle. What have we done to hide Him so, that Christ, who is it, is somehow only somewhere in the midst of it all? Should we simply pause in the midst of our busy season of celebrating? Or, should our season of celebrating be a pause in itself?
Nearly everything about it seemed repetitive and trite at best, and excessive and suffocating at worst. Even the noble activities felt like fake filler: chintzy, silver tinsel, lying in clumps on the floor. So I pondered the idea of not celebrating. I didn’t want to be a scrooge about it. I just thought maybe I’d skip out. It’s not like the early church celebrated Christmas, I reasoned. It’s not even the actual birth date of Jesus!
But that simply wasn’t going to happen. I got one too many looks, and realized I would be labeled a scrooge anyway. So I resigned myself to attempting revelry, but I still couldn’t keep from wondering . . . Where isChrist? Is He simply in the midst of it all? Instead, how can we pause, so that we might be in His?
I found myself continually coming back to one verse. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). Long, long ago, in some cave of a stable, out of the darkness, there was an advent. An arrival. An appearing. A new birth. Long, long ago, over some field or hillside, in the midst of the darkness, there was an epiphany. A sudden revealing. A manifestation of the divine.
I have sat with this verse for the last few years now, contemplating this truth, this wonder. That, while I was walking in darkness, while I was living in the land of the shadow of death, light broke in and split the black void. Light appeared in the form of a person. Light was born in the form of a baby. “God in the child in the manger.”
In the process of pondering this, the sweetness of celebrating Christmas -- and many of its traditions -- has slowly started to return. Not so much because I have rediscovered the sacredness of the season, or my inner child. Rather, I have learned to look past the swirl that surrounds Christmas Day, turning my gaze instead towards heaven where the vast night sky reminds me that, forever, Light has come into the world.
Where is Christ? He is beyond the hectic red-and-green fray . . . beyond the evergreen boughs and twinkling trees . . . even beyond the manger scene. Christ is in the darkness, piercing it with great light. Christ is on the horizon, bringing a new dawn. Christ is in our hearts, shining, that we might be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God (2 Cor. 4:6). A sudden revealing -- God now with us. A manifestation of the divine -- God now in flesh. A new birth -- for Him and all those who brave the cold, quiet stillness just before dawn and expectantly wait for His appearing.
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