In the northeastern United States where I grew up, the holidays of the church moved with the rhythm of the seasons. In November, the days grew shorter as our part of the earth tilted away from the sun, and Daylight Saving Time ended. Most of the trees shed their last remaining leaves, creating a stripped landscape. The temperatures dipped, bringing frost and snow.
As darkness and death descended, in December the light of Advent slowly pushed against it, growing with each week and each added candle of the Advent wreath. Advent reminded us that what is seen is not the whole picture; that long ago a baby had come into the world to banish the darkness forever, and that one day he would return as King. Amidst the darkness and cold and decay, hope was real and tangible, felt in the hot cocoa and cheery Christmas decorations, in the comfort of warm fires and bundling up to sing carols despite our cold fingers and toes. And the quiet of a snowy evening brought the “Silent Night” of Jesus’ birth close to the present.
I’ve left that climate now, and although I’m not standing upside down, certain things do seem topsy-turvy in the Land Down Under. All around me, people are gearing up for Christmas: flashing lights, gaudy Christmas trees strangled in tinsel, and shop shelves bursting with toys and chocolate. But my senses can’t fully process what time of year it is. I’m getting out swimsuits and water toys as the kids are begging for relief from the heat, and last week we were grateful for the shade and cool breeze at our church BBQ. My garden is planted, despite the toddler’s determined efforts to uproot my seedlings, and our apricot tree is nearing harvest time.
I miss the hot cocoa and the blazing fire. I miss watching the snow falling outside our window, encouraged by the large paper snowflakes hanging on the window pane. I want to bundle up in a scarf and hat and tramp through the snow to my neighbors’ house to sing about wassail and snowmen and the birth of Jesus.
Wait, snowmen and Jesus?
Somehow, the Western world’s celebration of winter has become wrapped up in the celebration of Advent and the birth of Jesus. The two have become so synonymous to me that now, transplanted to a different hemisphere, my body struggles to disassociate the two. And yet, the reality is that Jesus was born in a climate much closer to the one I’m in now than the one I grew up in.
So — here is an opportunity.
On one level, the opportunity is to be creative — to create new traditions and celebrations, like BBQs for Christmas and New Year’s Day, and beach toys instead of snow gear for Christmas presents.
And on another level, I’m given the opportunity to think about Advent separate from the celebration of winter. To ask, what’s this season all about? What does it mean to celebrate Advent and Christmas primarily as a Christian, not a Northeastern American?
I don’t mean to suggest that our celebrations be purely spiritual, divorced from the very physical bodies we are and the very physical world, and cultures, we live in. But rather, that when we are disoriented by time and place, our disorientation provides an opportunity for us to look for and hold on to the things that are true no matter where we are.
Here are a few of those true things I’m thinking about in this season:
Come, O long-expected Jesus. Advent is about waiting expectantly. It’s about remembering the longing that Israel had for so many centuries, waiting for the promised Messiah to come. And it’s about our own posture of waiting, looking to the future when Jesus comes again, not as a humble baby as he did before, but as a victorious King in glory. We wait in hope, trusting the promises of God.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. The world is a place of brokenness, injustice, and suffering. Advent is a time to grieve all that is wrong with the world — and with us. As Jesus told the Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). Our celebration of Jesus’ coming only makes sense when we understand the necessity of his coming. The more we groan under the weight of sin and death, the more our hearts will long for the coming King.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. Our God did not stay aloof from us, but came down in humility. He came to overcome the sin and death that keeps us from his presence. And when he left, he did not leave us alone, but remains with us through his Spirit. May I yearn for him, not only for the good things that come from knowing him.
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend. Two of the most prominent figures of Advent are John the Baptist and Mary. We know Mary well — I would do well to imitate her posture of humble submission. As for John the Baptist, he calls us, as he called the people of Israel, to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2). May my heart be receptive and soft, ready to repent and submit to God.
What disorientation are you feeling this season? What true things are you holding on to in the midst of it?
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