Have you bought gifts for everyone on your list yet? Made your Christmas cookies? Encouraged your children’s sense of wonder through Elf on the Shelf? Found the perfect outfit for your work holiday party? Attended all the extra church events, from the children’s pageant to the choir cantata to the caroling party?
Is your house decorated and ready for guests? Have you packed for traveling to see family? Planned what food you’ll prepare or bring to the feast? Written the end-of-year letter and mailed it out with your family Christmas photo greeting card?
For many, this time of year is full of hustle and bustle, frenzied energy and high expectations. Sometimes that results in genuine enjoyment of this “most wonderful time of the year,” but other times it becomes a layer of stress and anxiety that takes away from one’s full enjoyment of the season.
And for others, the bright lights and celebrations seem to all be happening in other people’s lives. Those who are single-but-would-rather-not-be, divorced, grieving, suffering from depression or other mental health issues, estranged from family members, isolated, lonely, or otherwise disconnected from the sources of joy and festivity may find December to be the most difficult month of the year.
If you’re active in a church, you may have already heard plenty about how different the observation of Advent is supposed to from our cultural preparations for Christmas. These four Sundays before the “big day” bring Scripture readings that start long before the baby in the manger. Contrast busy-ness with making time and space for God in prayer; contrast strings of lights and jingle bells with holy darkness and quiet waiting; contrast presents and parties with a world longing for a new revelation of God’s love and salvation.
But I want to lift up one particular way in which Advent can serve as the antidote to the challenges of the holiday season: Advent doesn’t expect you to have everything together and looking perfect. Rather, Advent says, “The world is full of pain and suffering, sin and brokenness. We need God to make things right.”
Yes, Advent holds up the hope of the prophets that someday, God will transform the world to look just as God wants it to – wolves and lambs, lions and calves, children and snakes all playing peacefully together; swords turned into plowshares; justice for the poor and oppressed, liberation for those in captivity… And yes, Advent hints that perhaps God is already beginning to bring this about.
But nowhere does Advent suggest that your family should spend all day smiling and posing for Facebook-ready photos, or that you should be spending thousands of dollars in gifts for your loved ones, or that your home should look like a Martha Stewart magazine.
Advent doesn’t even say that your church should be overflowing with families and newcomers who all feel perfectly inspired by every last detail of the most perfect Christmas Eve service ever.
Advent says, “God, where are you? We keep messing up, and we don’t know how to make things better.”
Advent says, “Parents are weeping for children who have been killed, and people are crying out for justice in a system that declares some are more worthy than others.”
Advent says, “The world is not as it should be. Help us, God! We need you!”
And Advent says, “Prepare to welcome the one named Emmanuel, God-with-us. For God is with us in the midst of pain and brokenness. God hears our cries for justice and has compassion on God’s people. God’s love is being born in the lowest and unlikeliest of places, and is being recognized by those who are far from the centers of power but paying attention to the signs and stirrings around them.”
Because Christmas is not about what we do. It’s about what God does for us.
Getting ready for Christmas does not require spending lots of money or running around like crazy or having the picture-perfect family celebration. Those things are fine if you enjoy them. But they are not required.
Getting ready for Christmas could be as simple as letting go of the picture in our head of how things are supposed to be, and looking for glimpses of God’s love being born in the messy, chaotic, imperfect, sometimes-painful reality we are actually living.
The truth is that Christmas will come even if we are not ready, even if we are still caught up in the fantasies of perfection or the pain of loss and isolation. God’s love is born in an undecorated stable, to poor parents far from home, in the midst of social inequality and the threat of state-sponsored violence, and only the outsiders were invited to the party.
The only thing God asked of anyone was to pay attention, and to participate in the world being made new.
So little. And yet it is everything.
Christmas is coming. God will do what God will do.
Thanks be to God.