I love the Christian calendar. It is a means of orienting our lives toward an agenda other than the dominant one of the culture that surrounds us. While Christmas is a season almost universally observed to one extent or another in the US and Canada, it is not the most effective way to prepare for a celebration of the birth of the Redeemer. In the dominant agenda, there is little need for a Redeemer, much less any attention given to worship, adoration, or contemplation. The focus for many seems more determined by nostalgia than sacred memory. There is a longing for a return to a “simpler time,” to the smell of cedar trees lovingly decorated by happy families.
In reality, for many, Christmas is an orgy of spending, a media and advertising agenda measured by the billions of dollars spent on gifts and gadgets, some of which will last barely past the last of the prebaked Christmas ham warmed in the convection oven.
It is not that I resent or dislike Christmas. My own memories are filled with the sounds and smells of the gatherings of family and friends that create a genuine anticipation of what we will experience once again as we share the day with cherished friends and extended family.
But perhaps this Advent I am more painfully aware that we need much more than “a little Christmas.” If ever there was a need to remind ourselves of the paradox of Advent, it is now. We look forward to the celebration of the birth of the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, but we dare not look beyond the context into which that baby was born, and the mortal risk that accompanied His birth. In those days there were many who were longing for the advent of the long promised Messiah. It had been centuries since those promises had been made through the Prophets that God would act on Israel’s behalf, would deliver them, would banish their “exile,” would overwhelm their enemies. At that time Yahweh would right all wrongs, and bring prosperity and security to His people.
But as we are aware, not many who so longed for that day were convinced that it had come to pass in the humble village of Bethlehem. There was the unlikely story of a young child whose family of origin raised awkward questions. The family lived for a time as refugees in Egypt because the centers of power desperately attempted to end his life within months of his birth. How could an itinerant preacher who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, was opposed by the religious establishment, and came to a tragic end on a Roman cross, have any valid claim to being lauded as the Messiah?
Advent is not an easy season of the Christian year. We are looking back to the First Advent while we are also focusing our attention toward the promised Second Advent, the return of Christ. He who had been cruelly tortured, who died, and was buried, was raised to life on the Third Day. He made a promise: He would return.
And as we look forward we suddenly find ourselves in a frame of reference similar to that of the residents of Bethlehem and Nazareth. We must not forget that it was the religious establishment which turned Jesus over to the Roman governor. Those religious leaders were furious that their traditions and status seemed so at risk if this “pretender” were to succeed in his announced intent to “destroy the Temple.” If the poor really were of greatest value to God, perhaps “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees,” as John the Baptist had declared. Then, everything is at risk! Whatever it takes to bring an end to this threat must be done!
Do we realize that evil means utilized or tolerated in order to accomplish a perceived “good” end will inevitably reveal the moral bankruptcy of the perceived “good”? You cannot accomplish holy purposes with unholy methods.
The coming of Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God challenged every preconception as to what was right and good. Security of place or status and access to power seemed to some like “values” that should be protected or pursued at all costs. But the song of Mary was testimony that everything had changed! Or, just maybe, everything was headed back to where it had been intended all along: “He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 2:50-52 CEB).
Advent is not an easy season. It just may challenge every preconception we have as to what matters and what does not, in the end, have any value at all. If we can get beyond the common measures of what Christmas is all about, perhaps we can listen to the carols with renewed appreciation for what His coming meant, for what it should mean to us now, and what His return should promise our broken, confused, stressed and bloody era:
“Truly He taught us to love one another.
His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of praise in grateful chorus raise we.
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Oh, Praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim.”
(John Sullivan Dwight’s text version of the Christmas hymn, “O, Holy Night.)
Merry Christmas, indeed!
Jesse C Middendorf
December 18, 2018