(Welcome to Christmas Vignettes 2020, a short daily reflection on Christmas and its meaning for Christians)
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Christians have a strong tradition of celebrating Christmas not just as a day, but as an entire season. In fact, according to the traditional Church calendar, the season of Advent actually marks the beginning of the year. The word Advent means “arrival” or “coming”, and the idea is that for the four weeks that lead up to Christmas, we are eagerly waiting for the coming of someone worldchanging.
It’s not about the presents! Sometimes I feel like we Christians can be a little severe when it comes to the whole “presents under the Christmas tree” thing. I mean there’s good reason to be skeptical; Christmas in the modern world is a crucial cog in the consumerist machine, manufacturing happiness with material possessions. But there is one good thing that has come out of this practice, and that’s teaching the lesson of anticipation. For weeks, children all over the world feel pain. Pain? During the most wonderful time of the year? Why and how so?
It is the pain of longing, of knowing the good that is over the horizon, that is approaching but yet feels so long away. It’s there, under the tree! I can see it, I can have it, it’s as good as mine, and yet still I wait.
During the Advent season, Christians assume a posture of anticipation. Before Jesus’ arrival was a long wait in darkness. We enter that experience and reflect on the hopelessness of a world weighed down by sin with no end in sight or possibility of relief. Long is the suffering, and heavy is the sorrow. The slaver’s chain is burdensome, and I can’t break them. How much longer, O Lord? How long will you allow your people to remain in bondage?
The people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned (Isaiah 9.2)
If you can appreciate longing for something better, then you can appreciate the Advent. If you can understand the desperate desire for an end to suffering, then you can get something out of celebrating this season. The ancient Church often practiced this season by intentionally spending time in darkness. It wasn’t as hard to do back then, before the advent (pun not intended) of the electrical grid. It’s also a little bit easier to do when you live in the Northern hemisphere, because right now in Sydney, the sun sets around 8pm.
However, something you can try is, for five or ten minutes before you go to bed, turn off all the lights and just sit there and meditate on Christmas. Meditate on how drastically the fate of the world changed when Jesus, the light of the world, arrived. I like doing this in my living room; when all the lights are off, I can still see the fairy lights of my Christmas tree. Their relative dimness express to me that the hope is coming, faint though it be now. This season, practice anticipation. Let it teach you that the current world, with all its pleasures and sorrows, is not the forever thing. The forever thing is still coming. It’s on its way. He is on his way.