Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. That’s what a lot of people say and feel. Sometimes, I’m one of them. Being with my congregation during the Christmas Eve service is probably one of the most wonderful things I experience all year long. But this whole season of Christmas is quite difficult for some of us. Some of us wish others “Merry Christmas” through clinched teeth.
We have to hold many things in tension, and for some of us that’s difficult. Things such as Santa and reindeer, with mangers and angels singing to shepherds; true, heartfelt Christmas giving, on the one hand, with consumerism on steroids on the other. I got an email the other day from Amazon. They often send me information about books or DVDs that I might like. This email advertised discounts on Pest Control and Omaha Steaks. In the same email.
Sometimes it seems easy to look to the wrong things for comfort. Instead of holding on to what is eternal and good and true, we hold onto something of much less value, like sales coupons from a favorite store. Instead of asking what we can give, we ask what we’re going to get. People looking for a church home often are asking questions like, “What can this church do for me and what will I get?” instead of asking, “What can God do through me here and what is God calling me to give?”
An elderly woman appeared last winter on The Tonight Show when Jay Leno was still hosting. She was 100 years old. She told a story of being at Universal Studios in L.A. It was windy day, her dress was blowing around, and she was holding tightly onto her hat. A little boy came up to her and said, “Lady you better stop a-hangin’ onto you hat and better hold your dress down. You’re showin’ everything you got.”
“I don’t care;” she said. “What they see down there is a hundred years old. But this is a brand new hat!”
I look around every Christmas and wonder if we’re holding onto the right things.
In the northern hemisphere, Christmas is the darkest time of the year, which is why we love our Christmas lights. Martin Luther lit real candles on his family’s Christmas tree because those pricks of light—like the stars of outdoors—reminded him of God’s light in darkness. And that evergreen reminded him of God’s grace which is ever-alive, ever-at work, ever-present in times of trouble. So too for many of us. Decorating my Christmas tree is about as fun a baptizing a rabid cat, but I do enjoy looking at my lit Christmas tree when the night is deep and the house is quiet and dark. I am reminded of something eternal, and sometimes the angel on top of that tree bores a hole right through me with that serene gaze of hers.
It is good to be reminded of God’s light in darkness, but it is precisely during this season that some of us are reminded of exactly how dark the world can be. Examples abound. A kid named Carl from my first youth group twenty five years ago reported on Facebook last week that his nine-year-old son lost his battle with cancer. Over 100,000 refugees live in Jordan with little hope of returning home to Syria. Some of us gustily sing along with the songs on the radio, songs like It’s the most wonderful time of the year. But some of us can’t sing that song, anyway, without feeling like a traitor; singing that song is like speed skating to the middle of a lake frozen over with thin ice. Wonderful? This life? Have you watched the news lately?
Existential angst, missing loved ones who aren’t here to celebrate with us (because they’re in heaven or in Orlando with other family), the push and shove of gift buying, the cheap plasticity of overdone commercialism, even the seeming small agonies of traveling or of fitting everything in—all of this becomes for many of us a great weight. And then the depravity from around the globe flickering on CNN slays us.
For people who are walking in darkness, it would appear that God’s light sometimes is just not enough.
God knows this. That’s why God came. He came at a time that looked a lot like now. People were hurting then as they are hurting now. Life was as uncertain then, as it is now.
God knows, still. And God comes, still. Could it be that Christ is born anew in our hearts if we but prepare him room? I think so. The light may seem dim, sure. But it’s the bravest, brightest light around. And it’s enough.
God has not come with red tinsel. God has not come offering a deal on something shiny and new that will soon wear out. Least of all, God has not come with a new Christmas hat. But God has come. And that is gift enough—at least it is for me.
On the eve of that first Christmas, Joseph was having second thoughts. Mary was pregnant. He wasn’t the father. Things weren’t adding up. Into this heart wrenching moment, an angel came to Joseph in a dream and helped him see beyond his dark assessment. This is legit, Joseph. You do not need to be afraid. Mary’s baby has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. Her child is God’s son, and God is with us.
Things don’t always add up for us, either. We see the suffering in the world, and God feels distant. We want to celebrate, but the weight is too heavy. We need an angel in the night to assure us in our fitful dreams. Instead, we have a long-distant memory passed down like treasured glass. In it, Joseph stands protectively over Mary who kneels over the manger where Jesus sleeps. Incarnation. Glory. Grace.
If it is the most wonderful time of the year, it is not, of course, because of the darkness. It is because of God’s light that shines in the darkness.
My prayer for every Advent and Christmas is the same: may we welcome the light, even as we are invited to share it.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...