“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Mt. 2:1-2).
The day is drawing nigh. We have been waiting for the coming of our Lord, the Advent of Jesus Christ, for just over two millennia now. But for just over four weeks, we have been waiting for Christmas. The season of Advent is the season we learn again what we have forgotten again: how to wait. But it’s a special kind of waiting, an active waiting. Advent is our dress rehearsal.
Dress rehearsals are the final rehearsals before the main attraction: full costumes, stage propped, spot lights on, everything ordinary strangely dimmed. Reality is altered. Advent is the time for the Church-and-company to decorate the world–street lights, storefronts, living rooms, gutters, sweaters, to-go cups, the airwaves [today I even saw a telephone pole dressed up like Christmas with giant plastic spruce tree branches]–to create the context to remember, and to deliver, the Advent message.
In ordinary times the Church brown-bags its Advent message and tries to be discrete. We want to the world to think we’re relatively normal, so we act like we don’t believe in weird things like miracles and prayer and the resurrection of the dead, so we don’t bother wrapping our message in the songs of heavenly host and superstitious wisemen, but only so we can share it at the table with brown-bagging sinners like Jesus did. If God can wrap himself in swaddling flesh, sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21), to deliver his message to the world, then surely the Church born of Christ should learn how to become ‘all things to all people’ in everyday life (1 Cor. 9:22). So in ordinary time, we deliver our Advent message in any and every context.
But the season of Advent is different. ‘Tis the season we insist upon obnoxiously decorating everything around us, because Advent means nothing less than that everything around us will one day be altered. Sure, it at times can be a little forced—the begrudging dog in his jingle-bell sweater, the divorced family in the strained “family” photo, the holiday that invariably requires more work than work since it is a holiday built on relationships, but it’s also somehow irresistible. All the pretense. All the happy. Neighbors walk across the street, strangers talk in lines, people awkwardly sing at the door of others who awkwardly listen, people smile. We all roll our eyes just thinking about it, but we simply can’t resist it. Even soldiers stop shooting each other so they can sing together instead, to pretend, if only for a night, that the world is not at war, to pretend there really were peace on earth, good will to men (cf. “The Christmas Truce of 1914”–come to this year’s Christmas Eve service at Crossroads for more on that).
The day after Christmas we may be back in our respective bunkers ready to fill the silence with shrapnel, the house with hostility, but we still can’t get the songs out of our heads. We may hate our ex-spouse till the day we die, but “Nurse, could you please put that “family” photo right next to the heart monitor.” There is a hatred that lives in all of us—an inherent need to create a “them” to secure ourselves within an “us,” the need to accuse and to blame and to gossip—but there is also the love of an idea of not having to hate. We really just want to live at peace in a world that runs on fear, a world where love is always weaker than grief, where Goodbye is more enduring than Hello. The world we find ourselves hoping for just can’t be, it seems, the one we find ourselves living in. So we settle for the one where we must compete and take and lock the doors and pick sides to protect ourselves. Except on Christmas, that day imaginations run amok, the day for pretending peace on earth, good will to men, the day the world is permitted to hope.
Perhaps this is why Christmas festivity is both the most alien and the most contagious thing the Church has ever created. The world won’t copy our theology or our piety or our prayers, but the world will copy our holy days. It will not prepare for Christ’s coming but it will prepare for Christmas. Perhaps that is why the first to come and see the original Christmas nativity scene was a group of “wise men” or “magi,” a Christmasy word for something equivalent to New Age pagan astrologists–zoroastrians. But they came, because suddenly the nationalistic Jewish hope had become nothing other than the hope of the world. This is simply because the Christmas message is little else than an articulation of the world’s longing from the other side of the promise. We all want peace, joy, love, and eternity more than we want power and fear driven self-preservation, but power is more believable on the surface where it is more available than hope.
So maybe we should reconsider our brown-bagging approach. Sure, we want to speak the language of the people, but only in order to teach them a new language. We want to “become all things to all people,” like Paul, but also like people we do so in order “that by all means we (rather Christ in and through us) might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). So perhaps we should more often pull our Gospel out of the bag and deliver it like the strange Gift that it is in all its odd, shiny, Christiany wrapping paper to people who don’t even observe the Church’s Christmas or our Christ by asking simple questions or offering simple statements like: “Can I pray for you?” or “Jesus Christ died for you” or “With God all things are possible.” Or perhaps you can ask a question about hope.
Everyone hopes. But there is only one kind of hope that increases as life decreases, as health declines, as love is lost, because only one kind of hope is based on the claim that all that is lost will one Day be restored. That is the hope of Advent, the hope of Christmas, the hope the world is waiting for the Church to offer. Let’s give the gift of hope this year. Tell someone without hope how you’ve found hope in Jesus.
After all, that’s what they’ve really come to see.