Does Christmas even matter? Would the world be worse without it? Why doesn’t it seem to make things better, this holiday framed by giving and generosity? Why isn’t this month when we aim goodness towards each other, enough to change our minds about each other?
Christmas doesn’t matter. Not without Advent.
Christmas without Advent is a carnival of the senses, a blind attempt to understand what is wrong on Earth and then fix it with traditions and sincere endeavors of kindness. The trouble is, it doesn’t work. Christmas doesn’t fix anything. But we keep at it year after year, knowing that there is something important in those holy days. Like children trying to count the stars, we aim our sights at the lofty goal of “peace on earth” and believe for a few weeks, with enough good-will and twinkly lights, that it really might be possible.
Quite opposite from the festivities of Christmas and yet inextricably tied together, Advent asks us to consider the story of Jesus of Nazareth and reflect on why that story matters 2,000 years later. Christmas is a burst of wild flame that quickly disappears; Advent is a slow and quiet campfire that says, “Listen. Remember. Wait.” And what are we waiting for?
To be restored. To be saved from the horrors we create.
The problem with the trappings of our modern life, with our heated homes and cozy furniture, our bowls full of Christmas oranges and the clean water in our taps, is that the beauty and convenience by which we are surrounded allows us to imagine ourselves progressed beyond the need to be saved from anything at all, much less ourselves. Our accessibility to ease and our addiction to comfort (and the addictions our comfort produces) convince us that we, in and of ourselves, are worthy of the wealth we’ve inherited.
Only when my vision is cleared by the humbling work of reflection and repentance (a worrisome and churchy word, but really just means to change my mind and turn another direction) can I find any reason that Christmas matters at all. If I am the ruler of my life then who cares if Christ came, because I don’t need a King anyways. Who needs a king when our tiny kingdoms of self will suffice? And how can we hear the crumbling mortar of the castle walls when the world is eager to remind us that we are doing great and that you are all you need? How can I assume a posture of Advent, of expectant waiting and joyful giving, when I sit so comfortably in the warmth of my convenient life?
And yet, we know. The seed of dissatisfaction blooms full and tangled as we age and cannot escape who we have become, are becoming. Something is wrong, we know it, so we invent worries and inflate problems. We drown in a 2-inch puddle of neurosis, and every day is another reason for unhappiness. We avoid the truth of our selves and what we lack by choosing to look outward and blame, rather than gaze inward and repent.
The longing and waiting of Advent cannot penetrate those of us who cannot remember or bear to consider what it is we need saved from, what it is we wait upon- which is the depravity of our own hearts, and the arrival of a King who shines with a piercing kind of light. We cannot generate this light on our own and we cannot heal our own broken hearts, and this disconnect between what the world says about us and what we secretly know about ourselves is uncomfortable. So we cover it up with hard work, nice things, and the magnification of petty concerns.
Here’s the goodness that we miss in the crowded rooms of our comfortable lives, the actual truth we think we are afraid to encounter: Not that we are unworthy of love or beyond repair, but that the darkness within, those false selves we parade around as protection from the pain and betrayal of life on this planet- the good news is that those shadow selves can be healed. We fear the depth of our darkness and so we avoid admissions of guilt, but then we stomp right past the relief of the light and the rest comes in the waiting.
When we step in the glowing love of the Light of the World, we are made into our true selves. But because it seems impossible to hold two seemingly opposite truths in my frail human hands, that I am not enough and yet I am absolutely loved, I spin my own story instead, where I am the center, I am the hero, I am not perfect but at least I’m not those other people. Advent doesn’t matter because I’m not waiting for anything, because I’m already here, and I can make things better on my own.
It is not the walls of my house or the confines of my neighborhood, the food in my fridge or the stream of information on my screens which keep me from Christ and the ache of Advent; it is the walls of my imagination, the confines of my narrow perspective, the appetites and ambitions which convince me that the ache is for something else, something I can produce, something someone else can give me, something I just haven’t found yet. My easy access to resources momentarily shelters me from the reason for Christmas, which is that without Jesus, I cannot find the peace I so desperately seek. Surely after all these thousands of years in which we regularly wish for peace on earth and joy for all, we can see that nothing will change when left to our own ideas and machinations. It takes a revolution of the human heart, a fire lit by an outside source and left to burn in our blood and bones, to ignite change that matters, change that lasts.
Advent is the invitation to light a candle and altar the darkness. It is a call to the King who came as a baby and lived as a man, beside us, with us, ever for us, forever triumphant over the wrong within and outside us. Advent is on the lips of the martyrs, in the arms of mothers and fathers, it is sung by the choirs and chanted by the oppressed, it is full in the hearts of the bereaved and yes, still, it is in my home, in the tree trimmings and gifts, in the candles we light every day as we join in the groaning chorus of all creation,
Come, King Jesus. Make it right. Make it right in me, that I might work with you to make it right around me. I light these candles to remember you, and to say thank you for remembering me.
Merry Christmas, friends. And a blessed Advent as we wait and work in hope.