Like many people, I probably enjoy Christmas more than any other time of the year. I love the cold weather that blows in around December. I love seeing all of the houses in our neighborhood lit up. I love the time to stop and spend time with family too. In America, it’s rare that we actually put a halt on life. Christmas is one of those rare times.
Beyond the sentimentality of the season, Christmas is one of the most spiritually vibrant times of the year for me. I’m more likely to get emotional in a worship service around Christmas than any other time of the year. I’ve tried writing good Christmas sermons but I can’t because I don’t know how to express the power of what God did that night in Bethlehem.
Even as Christians, we make a crucial mistake in how we approach the Christmas season and it’s more fundamental than whether or not to do the Santa Claus thing or the elf on the shelf. The truth is, this isn’t really the Christmas season. Traditionally, the Church spends the four weeks prior to Christmas observing Advent.
Believe it or not, Advent is not a season of celebration but one of anticipation. It is the recognition of our broken world. We remember the oppression Israel felt for centuries prior to Christ and recognize our own depravity today. It is a time to meditate on the darkness Jesus was born into and our own darkness that he will someday come again to rescue us from. This sets the stage for the celebration of Christmas.
Unfortunately, we often omit Advent from our Christmas traditions. We celebrate the joy of Christ coming into our world but ignore the darkness that precluded him. By the time Jesus was born, world empires had oppressed Israel for centuries. The census that required Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem was a chance for the Roman government to count everyone and demand taxes from them. It was a region-wide shake down. Rumors of insurrection were all around and the government was aware of it. This led to more and more public crucifixions and greater oppression of the people. They were hungry for a rescuer who would defeat their oppressors and become their true king.
You’ll notice this theme throughout many of our Christmas carols. They are sung in minor keys. Both musically and lyrically, they leave you with a sense of angst and waiting. It is a combination of celebration, anticipation, and deep longing. The Church celebrated Christmas against this backdrop to establish the right frame of mind. But in many churches, the concept is virtually non-existent. We celebrate the joy of Christmas without recognizing the horror that Jesus came to save us from.
Our Present Longing
A key component to the Advent celebration is the recognition of our own depravity so that it reminds us of Jesus’ second coming. I think the reason we don’t stop to contemplate the darkness of the world around us is because we’re not often exposed to it. We don’t see it or care to see it. We just do as much as we can to be happy and forget about it. But this is also why we don’t long for the day of Christ’s return. Life is good so why would we be eager to see this world end? But ask anyone suffering through depression, the loss of a loved one, poverty, or addiction and they’ll immediately identify with the idea of Advent.
Our True Reality
Whether we recognize it or not, the entire human race is oppressed by sin and death. The Scriptures tell us that we were dead in our trespasses. But God did more than speak through prophets or split large bodies of water in half. That wasn’t enough. He loved us too much to see us slowly rot and wilt away. So he personally invaded the darkness. I love how C.S. Lewis describes it.
One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe – a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin… Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
God came into the darkness that enslaved his creation to break us free. We celebrate Christmas to remember that day he invaded this world in the form of an innocent child in a countryside barn. We do this while recognizing that the Kingdom he established through his death and resurrection will not be fully realized until he returns. So we celebrate his coming while longing for the day he will come again.