When I was a kid, Christmas was the most predictable time of the year. My entire family lives here in the Dallas area. My grandparents’ homes are within two miles of each other. My parents still live in the house where I grew up and my brother and his family live just down the street from them.
With everyone living so close, we’ve always been a tight-knit family. Growing up, we were saved the hassle of traveling to another city for Christmas. My parents never had to sacrifice time with one side of the family for the other.
Every Christmas Eve, we would open presents from the extended family, hear my great-grandmother’s brother-in-law recite Luke 2, and head home in time for
Santa to come down the chimney my Dad to curse the day he was born while putting together our toys.
But over the past decade, a lot has changed in our family. My brother and I are both married and parenting our crazy kids. As a pastor, Christmas Eve isn’t a day off for me anymore. Through the years, some of the family have passed away and our traditions look much different.
Like most adults, my attitude towards Christmas has changed too. I dread pulling down the decorations from the attic. The season is so busy with parties and extra work that I often have a hard time stopping to enjoy it. Meanwhile, every year, we’re searching for that elusive balance between time with my family and hers.
There’s tremendous pressure to be joyful over Christmas, yet many people truly dread it. The people we once celebrated with pass away. Money gets tight. Family conflict erodes at our relationships. This year, the tension is even greater as many families face the prospect of not even getting to gather. Those crushed under the weight of these pressures often feel out of place in December. Some even feel like bad Christians for not feeling joy when gazing upon the manger scene. But if that’s you, this season is especially for you.
The Season of Advent
Yesterday marked the start of the Advent season, a time of waiting and preparation. In the four weeks prior to Christmas, we reflect on the period of waiting the biblical characters faced in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth. For the Jews, his birth marked the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise, and it came in a time of oppressive Roman occupation. The birth of their King was a glimmer of hope in a time when they felt enslaved, devalued, and forgotten. You have to wonder if many of them felt completely abandoned by God in their centuries of waiting.
The scene of that first Christmas is that much more profound when you consider that Jesus was born to a poor couple in an insignificant region. It was witnessed by shepherds, a group of people considered so lowly that they couldn’t even testify in court. The kings who came to adorn Jesus with gifts came from far away lands, not from his own countrymen.
It helps to remember that Jesus was born into a time of great darkness. It wasn’t a bright and cheery time. There were no sparkly lights, Black Friday deals, family gatherings, or talk of peace on Earth. It came in a time of political instability, uncertainty, and fear. (Sound familiar?)
Next time you’re listening to the traditional Christmas carols, take a moment to reflect on the lyrics. Notice the minor keys and heavy tones. Both musically and lyrically, they leave you with a feeling of angst and waiting. They combine a sense of deep longing and anticipation, given way to sudden celebration. The Christmas season itself is naturally borne from the basic idea that all is not well in our world.
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.
Our Present Longing
We can’t fully celebrate the coming of Christ without first recognizing our own need for him. It should naturally make us yearn for his second coming. We often don’t stop to contemplate the darkness around us.
We try so hard to engineer happy memories in December, often forgetting that we are living in the darkest month of the year. 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 and the longing to be made new again.
The human race remains enslaved to sin and death. Paul describes us as “dead in our trespasses.” But God did more than speak through prophets or split bodies of water in half. That wasn’t enough. He loved us too much to leave us in our death. So, he personally invaded the darkness. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes it best:
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.
Jesus broke through the darkness to set us free. So if you’re experiencing regret, sorrow, addiction, or pain in your life, this is your hope over the coming weeks. We celebrate the day he invaded this world as an innocent child in a countryside barn. The Jesus we worship wasn’t insulated from pain or darkness while he was here. He dove right into it. The baby in that nativity scene would grow up and feel abandonment, loss, rejection, and even death – just like you and me. But he didn’t come to merely experience it. He came to conquer it.
If you find yourself dreading Christmas this year, know that the darkness you feel in your heart is the exact same darkness every character in Luke 2 felt. Just imagine their joy when they realized the true King had just landed in their own backyard – that he counted them worthy of bearing witness to his invasion. Consider that moment when they finally realized all will finally be well. The same hope is offered to you.
God is here. Let your weary soul rejoice.