The season of Advent — the four weeks leading up to Christmas Sunday — is my favorite time of the year. I usually block out all “Xmas songs” and focus on the songs of Advent — the songs of waiting, hope, expectation and promise. Now, of course, I can and do listen to Christmas hymns all year long (much to the ‘I’ll be darned!!’ consternation of my children who must suffer through a car ride with me humming through O Come All Ye Faithful in the middle of June!)
But somehow, my desire to sing the songs of Christmas is soon overwhelmed by the beginning of November and I am anxious for Advent — to lift a hymn of expectation and hope. How else will we build up to the real joy and fulfilment of…
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
and heaven and nature sing…
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground!
He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found…”
(Joy to the World, Isaac Watts, 1719)
…except we walk through the expectant and hopeful strains of
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadows put to flight….
(O Come, O Come Emmauel, ca 1851)
To go right to “Joy to the World” without the cry for God With Us to “Come!” is like glossing over Good Friday to get to Resurrection Sunday. Where is the meaning in the celebration without a reminder first of what got us there?
Before Halloween, the world turns on the cash register with an eye on a “good” Christmas. It is the season for business and bottom lines.
Through these songs, I am reminded that the birth of Jesus — a poor baby who never escaped the earthly “scandal” associated with being a “mamzer” — a child of questionable parentage– is the fulfillment of God’s promise to break through the heavy silence that engulfs hope after the voices of the Prophets begin to taper off — to break through with a New Thing!
I am reminded about the many, many ways people are still suffering. Needlessly. For no reason. And, I am reminded how much the world still needs this Real New Thing…not yuletide, debt and “white Christmas” fantasies. We are in denial….we think we are okay and that we will be even more okay if we just have a good Christmas. But, I don’t think you can have a “good” Christmas if you don’t know what a good Christmas is in the first place.
He comes the prisoners to release
in Satan’s bondage held;
the gates of brass before Him burst,
the iron fetters yield.
He comes the brokenhearted to bind
the bleeding soul to cure,
and with the treasures of His grace,
to enrich the humble poor.
(Folk Hymn, ca 1755, Hark, The Glad Sound)
Christmas — the incarnation of the One who has power to ransom our captive hearts, to lead us from exile, to make safe the way that leads to God — is the fulfillment of a promise.
A good Christmas, therefore, is about the celebration of fulfilled promises. It is the celebration of the God who still promises. It is the honoring of the way in which God can use even us to fulfill promises.
What if we gave a “good Christmas” to God’s beloved through our commitment to be used…still…of God to fulfill real promises…
— That the righteous would not be hungry and God’s seed would not be left to beg for bread! Where are the food pantries? Where are your hungry neighbors and family members? Where are hungry children? What of the systems that create hungry people?
— That people who are bound would be free! Where are people struggling against powerful chains? Iron bars and chains, mental chains, emotional chains, spiritual chains, societal chains…….
— That people whose hearts have been broken will find wholeness! Where are the people whose hearts are in need of binding? People who are one step away from the precipice?
They…we…need more than watches, perfume, video games and shiny “whatevers.”
Christmas becomes real when the promises of Advent are fulfilled….when God uses small, average, broken, ordinary people as instruments in God’s continuing quest to blot out the space between what is and what ought to be:
- The space between hunger and the promise of a place at the Welcome Table.
- The space between sickness and the promise of healing.
- The space between loneliness and the promise of deep fellowship.
- The space between despair born from encountering the end of the road and the promise of New Life.
God, use me to keep a promise. Use me to consume someone’s sadness and grief with real joy. Come and transform our pain and suffering and death — not just through some change in our circumstance — but through the incarnation of Eternal Hope. Jesus, we are depending on You more than ever to become real flesh….still…to move deep into the troubled neighborhoods of our lives with Your peace. Amen.