For me, this truly is the most wonderful time of the year. I have always loved everything about Christmas. I love the music, the decorations, the traditions, the colors, the food, and the smells. I love the memories, the lovely familiarity of the family stories told every year, and the opportunity to create magical spaces. I love the extravagance and the busyness and the coziness. I even love the frantic energy that seems to ramp dramatically after the first two weeks of December.
And I love the enchanting Christmas stories, all the stories of mystery and magic, Christmas ghosts, snowy cheer, and romance. But most of all, I love the Story. An almost unbelievable story of Splendid Majesty cloaked in the small sturdy body of a newborn baby, wrapped in well-used rags asleep in a feeding trough. Magnificence left Glory to live in the mundane- the helpless, brutal life of a lowly carpenter’s son in an obscure village. This story of humiliating incarnation has always captured my imagination and resonated deeply in me in a way that even the crucifixion and resurrection do not. Perhaps it is because this Advent story explains so much of the past, present, and future of my own story and likely of yours.
My longings for Christmas are not just the passing passions a child has for a magical morning when gifts appear, and the joy of surplus is experienced. I have a desperate kind of love for Christmas. Something in my soul yearns for it all year long with an acute need to be touched by the certainty that no matter how grim the stable, it all ends well.
Once upon a time I was a helpless infant, an abandoned orphan born into difficult circumstances. Yet, I was blessed to be adopted into a generous and loving family. We didn’t have much, but our Christmases were full of love, excitement, laughter, and goodness. No matter what had happened that year, whether it was divorce, death, loss of job, injury, or illness, we put aside all that was going on for a few days and restfully enjoyed every minute of our time together. As a child this seemed normal to me, and I never realized what it might have cost the adults in my life to keep the ugliness out of those few days together. But they did this for me. I was the only child in the family. It was a beautiful sacrifice and extraordinary effort made for me.
You see, the rest of the year, I was well aware of the brokenness in my story. I was an adopted, lonely, only child with divorced parents spending much of my time alone with a piano, a violin, and a book. But for those few days at Christmas, all the dysfunction, the distrust, and the disappointment was suspended and we were just a big extended happy family. Miraculously, I got to be a part of it.
As I got older, I realized that in many ways we were pretending, but I also knew that there was something very true about our time together. Those beautiful days foreshadowed the truest thing in the universe- All will be well!
As a young adult who was still obsessed with Christmas, I tried to justify my fixation by finding spiritual meaning in the parts of the season I loved most, and I was determined to give my children the joyful holiday celebration I had experienced. I made sure every decoration symbolized something about the Christmas story. We had several Jesse trees, baskets of story books, and multiple advent calendars that told the story of Jesus. We had magical Christmas mornings filling trash bags full of giftwrap with a plethora of new toys to play with and promptly break or lose. I think there were at least three years in a row when a flying apparatus (Stomp rockets, remote control helicopters, boomerangs, etc.) ended the day stranded on our roof, a “tradition” we have only recently left behind. And while all of these memories are precious and I do treasure them in my heart, the heart of Christmas meant something more was needed. About seven years ago we started celebrating Christmas different, focusing less on gifts (we faced a family mutiny if we eliminated them all together) and more on experiences. Instead of the big gift extravaganza on Christmas morning, we have a stocking exchange and then spend the day playing inventive games and enjoying each other instead of the things we found under the tree. We’ve played human foosball, had a Georgia snowball fight (yes that requires fake snowballs), raced remote control trucks, played minute-to-win-it, had a video scavenger hunt, and had several wars with nerf guns, colored powder, various balls and glow-in-the-dark rings. Honestly, if you are wanting good cross-generational communication, let your 19-year-old son plan a drinking game (with water, of course) that your 82-year-old aunt shocks everyone by easily winning. While these glory days capture a sense of the relational wholeness to come, there are still conflicts and disappointments that remind us we are not yet home.
I have spent a lot of time wondering if Christmas is an idol for me and if my attempts to spiritualize everything about it are futile efforts to whitewash something that is simply sinful. But the more I understand the story and the character of the Author who wrote it, the more I believe that this desire I have comes from Him.
The Advent Story that begins with creation, descends into complete brokenness with the Fall, and is a gradual upward narrative to a humble first coming and a glorious second, is primarily a story about God moving ever closer to an unlovable people who He continually invites into His family anyway.
When Adam and Eve spurned God for their independent self-sufficiency, God mercifully banished them from the garden so that they could not eat of the Tree of Life, thus spending eternity broken and separated from Him. Even His movement away from them was for their good, but He didn’t stay away for long. He spoke to Noah and Abraham, He came in a burning bush and a pillar of cloud and fire to speak to Moses, and He lived in a tent and then a temple to be among His people. Even that wasn’t close enough. He became one of us and lived our life with us, sacrificing all so that we might gain a new heart, the right home for His indwelling Spirit. And while that gives us an intimacy with Him that occasionally echoes the beauty of the garden, He is moving closer still and inviting us to something far greater.
The first coming, the incarnation, made it possible for us to relate spiritually- relating to God without distance or intermediary, relating to self with honesty and courage, and relating to others through the powerful love of the Spirit. However, each of these relationships crumbles in places from the strain of sin and shame. The second coming, the triumphant return, will complete that work, drying every tear, setting every captive free, binding up and forever healing broken hearts, and casting aside all shame and fear. Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” succinctly captures what the first coming made possible and the second coming guarantees.
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee
I still hunger for a great Christmas, usually starting in late August, but now that desire leads me to find where my story and the advent story intersect and overlap. Just like my adopted parents sought me and invited me into their hearts and home, my Heavenly parent has pursued me and asks me to share in the life of His beloved community. When my husband pursues my heart with either kindness or greed, and my children are grateful for or oblivious to my acts of service, I am reminded of the One who gave up everything in the consummate act of service so that I might have a new heart and live gratefully overwhelmed by His love. When my heart breaks and my tears won’t stop, I am compelled to look up and see the One who cast my sin as far as the east is from the west but captures my every tear in a bottle.
Every year at Christmas the Trinity moves closer to me through this desire for the perfect experience of love and I am offered a unique opportunity to embrace the invitation with greater openness and fervor and to come in close. Each advent retelling of the story of a baby born into a broken family who came for me and comes for me, brings me into the life of the Trinity and gives me courage to abandon my self-protection and to relate spiritually to God, myself, and others. Much like I got a taste of what big family was like at Christmas when I was a kid, these days Christmas gives me a glimpse of the wholeness, beauty, and shalom that will be mine when all is made new and right again.
This is your story too. How is God drawing near to you this year? How will you respond?
Come closer. You are invited in!