I wish we celebrated Christmas less.
Before you shout me down with cries of “Bah humbug!” let me clarify: I love Christmas. I’m one of the biggest Christmas dorks you’ll ever meet– ugly sweaters, musical Christmas neckties, twinkle lights and sugar cookies and Hallmark movies, the whole holiday package. I start playing Christmas carols on an endless loop once the last bite of Thanksgiving turkey hits my mouth. I can quote “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” from memory. I agree with Buddy the Elf that “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”
So when I say that I wish we celebrated Christmas less, I’m not looking for any less Christmas spirit. I’m not trying to steal anyone’s “who hash.” Bring on the egg nog and presents.
Instead, what I want is more Advent longing.
You’re probably familiar with the term “Advent,” even if you’re fuzzy on the details. Advent wreaths, candles, and calendars are fairly standard holiday trappings, even for secular celebrations. But long before Advent was incorporated into our Christmas festivities, it was a season of the liturgical church calendar in its own right– the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day. Advent was set aside for contemplation, preparation, and longing, anticipating the coming of Christ (the word “advent” means “arrival”).
However, even though I grew up in a liturgical tradition that emphasized Advent, I still somehow missed what it was all about. As a kid, I knew that Advent meant anticipating the arrival of Christ, but I was unable to extricate that notion from the omnipresent Christmas season. I thought Advent anticipation meant looking forward to Christmas, play-acting as though Jesus hadn’t come yet, and anticipating his arrival in the manger (and let’s be honest, the arrival of presents under the tree). And so Advent became yet another sentimental Christmas tradition, a gentle reminder of the baby Jesus, no more significant than a nativity scene.
But in recent years, I’ve been returning to Advent, and finding a far deeper meaning there. You see, Advent doesn’t commemorate the first arrival of Jesus in a manger; it anticipates the second arrival of Jesus in glory. Advent leans forward with longing for the King to come again, for light to break across the horizon of this darkened world, for the endless winter to be swept away by Aslan on the move. Advent is the midnight of the Christian calendar, insisting that a new day is beginning even though the darkness seems endless and unchallenged.
Advent doesn’t commemorate the first arrival of Jesus in a manger; it anticipates the second arrival of Jesus in glory.
I’ve come to realize that I love Advent more than I love Christmas, because Advent is more “real” than our commercialized, sentimentalized Christmas. Again, I love sentimental Christmas. But I’ve also wrestled with depression my entire life, and find enjoinders to “have yourself a merry little Christmas” incredibly unhelpful in that struggle. All too often, I’m not “simply having a wonderful Christmas time,” and I resent the insistence that I should be. We sing, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” but for most of us it’s not. We talk about peace and joy, but many of us are just trying to get through the holidays unscathed. Family drama, loss, tragedy, and depression all conspire to make dark December even darker. Turn on the news, and you’ll see that “hate is strong and mocks the song of ‘peace on earth, goodwill to men.'” Our twinkle lights and cheery carols cannot drown out the realities of suffering, sin, and sorrow that threaten to swallow up our celebrations. And so for many of us, Christmas becomes a yearly exercise in denial and delusion, in which we try to reconjure some of the old childhood magic by sticking our heads in the sand repeating, “peace and joy” when there is no peace.
Advent, however, faces up to the brokenness of the world in a way that our holly jolly Christmas celebrations fail to do. Advent rejects the claim that “all is calm, all is bright,” and instead fixes our attention on what’s wrong, and on Scripture’s insistent hope that God is going to do something about it. Christmas, of course, launches that great rescue mission. But Advent yearns for the end of the story: all things made new (Revelation 21:5), justice rolling down like water (Amos 5:24), the knowledge of the glory of the Lord filling this empty world (Habakkuk 2:14), crooked places made straight (Isaiah 40:4), the mighty brought down from their thrones and the humble exalted (Luke 1:52), every knee bowing to the King (Philippians 2:10), and every tear wiped away (Revelation 21:4).
Fleming Rutledge, in her book, Advent, writes, “In a very real sense, the Christian community lives in Advent all the time… The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world is held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory that is yet to come. In that Advent tension, the church lives its life.”
Rather than trying so desperately to hide from reality and manufacture Christmas cheer, what if we instead leaned into the longing that this season stirs? What if we toned down the artificial jolliness, and reached for the deeper ache that Advent can give us? What if we looked our brokenness in the face, and kept looking until our hearts yearned for the King to restore all things?
So let’s take back Advent candles from the hollow cliches of the holiday season and remember that “hope, peace, joy, and love” (which the four colored candles represent) will not be consummated until the arrival of the King (represented by the fifth Christ candle). Let’s highlight the Advent tensions of the Christian life in our holiday carols. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is an Advent classic, reminding us to rejoice in a minor key. “Joy to the World,’ you might be surprised to find out, isn’t actually a Christmas carol, but is actually an Advent hymn anticipating the return of Christ and restoration of the world. “He rules the world with truth and grace” is the reign we long to see consummated. And let’s dust off other, less-known Advent songs like “Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding, “Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending,” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” which ponder the weighty and wonderful Second Coming.
And most of all, let’s fix our eyes on Jesus– not just on the baby in the manger, but on the great hope that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Yes, we celebrate the wonderful truth that God became Immanuel at Christmas. But amidst the twinkle lights and presents, don’t miss what we really long for: the day when he will be Immanuel again, and wipe away every tear from our eyes. Let’s make that coming day the center of our celebrations this holiday season.