I grew up in a family that bought the Christmas tree, brought out the Christmas decorations, and whipped the house into holiday splendor on Christmas Eve. Our trees often looked like Charlie Brown trees because the good ones had already found homes by the time we shopped; sometimes we even got the sad tree for free—our first Christmas gift.
In any case, the rule was clear—no Christmas before Christmas. We lit our Advent wreath and said our prayers at dinner every night. We watched the first candle burn perilously close to the greens during our four week-wait and watch. We knew Christ (or at least Christmas) was coming…but far too slowly for our impatient spirits.
These days, as I see Christmas décor up at Halloween and hear radio stations switch to Christmas-only programming before Thanksgiving, I cringe at the rushing of the season. I complain about advertisements seeking to persuade us that material objects will bring happiness. I watch people buy gifts they can’t afford knowing that I will be asked in January if I can help with heating and rent bills.
In December, the world fills the darkening days with shopping, bright lights, cheerful Christmas carols, and lots of holiday parties ; we give into a world of excess. Meanwhile, the church begins worship in darkness, sings somber tunes, decorates itself in muted purples, and reads scripture passages about end times and a wild man in the wilderness.
For three Sundays we hear: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Here is your God. He will come with a vengeance, with terrible recompense.” “Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” “Are you the one who is come, or are we to wait for another?” “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”
Our Advent themes are wait, watch, and maybe even worry—Am I really right with God? Am I really ready for Christ to come? Sometimes during the dark December days, I wonder whether the world has it right. Maybe, quite literally, the church needs to lighten up.
But then I remember what the teens tell us—St. Stephen’s is the only place where they can be real, where they can admit to struggles and questions, where they can confess to having messed up, where they know they are loved and will always be welcome.
Our world is full of darkness and light, of bad choices and good, of death and life. Advent reminds us that even though we are human creatures prone to turning away from God, “the light came into the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” The darkness is real but so is Christ, thanks be to God. Let Christ’s light and love come into your life. Let there be Christmas for real in your heart because God loves you beyond measure.
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