The first thing you’ll notice about this message is that it’s really brief. There’s a reason for that: we heard the stories behind all five carols we sang this morning, the first Sunday of the Christmas season. You will hear Colossians 3.12-17 read before I bring this short message entitled, “Sing!”
It’s a week before Christmas, and four days before the first day of winter here in the northern hemisphere. That means the days are short and the nights are long. Where I live, there have been many cloudy days lately, too, which have left some of us feeling like it might get dark by noon!
Perhaps this is one reason why many people – even irreligious people – put up beautiful displays of lights at this time of year. For example, there is someone who lives near me who does not go to church at all (despite repeated invitations!), but who has a gorgeous light display outside his home, to which he adds week by week. Is it for Christmas? Probably. Is it to bring some light in the darkness? Almost certainly.
Maybe these lights are symbols of Jesus himself, who came to be the Light in our darkness. That’s how I’m going to take it, anyway.
This may be a dark time of year for you, for one reason or another; look at the Christmas lights you see out in your neighbourhood, and give thanks that God saw fit to break into history in the form of Jesus, the Light of the world.
“Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, ‘I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life’” (John 8.12, NLT).
Last week, I wrote about waiting. We all find it hard, being used to getting what we want when we want it. But waiting, along with being a reality of life (and of Advent!), is a spiritual discipline. Among the fruit of the Spirit, according to the apostle Paul in Galatians 5.22-23, is patience. And it takes patience to wait.
Where I live, the only hints of the season are decorations and sales at the malls. There is no snow to remind us that Christmas is coming. We want to “get into the season”, so we sing carols and hope that will make us sufficiently festive. But maybe – just maybe – waiting even to sing carols is not a bad thing.
Advent is not only a season of waiting, but of preparation, even penitence. What, we can ask ourselves, have we done to make ourselves spiritually ready for Christmas? We’ve learned how to be ready by other standards, after all: shopping for all the right people, arranging our calendars to fit in all the necessary gatherings, etc. But are we ready spiritually?
I’ve always been fascinated by C.S. Lewis’ statement in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe about what it’s like in Narnia under the evil witch: “Always winter, never Christmas.” I can’t remember where I read it, but not long ago, I read a twist on that quotation that I think applies to our culture at this time of year: “Always Christmas, never winter.”
Breathe for a moment, and ponder that: “Always Christmas, never winter.”
For those who find Christmas an especially difficult time because of the death of a loved one, that saying may make more sense than to others, for they experience a greater degree of ‘winter’ as they process the reality of a special time of year bereft of someone who mattered deeply to them. But to much of society, there is an innate desire to skip the ‘winter’ part and move directly to Christmas. (This same desire transports people immediately from Palm Sunday to Easter, skipping over the ‘winter’ of Good Friday, but that’s a topic for another day.)
I think Christmas becomes more meaningful when we endure a bit of ‘winter’, whether with snow or not. And Advent can help us do that. It doesn’t mean we have to endure profound suffering, but a ‘winter’ experience can help us look at our spirits in the mirror and see what we need to do to be spiritually ready for Christmas.
Will you take some time to experience ‘winter’ before Christmas?
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalm 139.23-24, NLT).
Advent is a season of waiting. And we live in a time when we’re not really used to waiting, so it can be very hard for us.
I don’t know if your childhood experience was like mine, but when I was a kid, seeing all the presents under the tree, weeks before Christmas, left me feeling very impatient. Some years, my mother would let me open one gift sometime in the week before Christmas. I don’t know whether that was to get me to shut up or if there was some more noble purpose behind it. Of course, it worked for a while, but not really for long.
As adults in this day and age, the older we get, the less we need or even want for Christmas; when we need or want something, if it’s within budget (hopefully!), we just go out and get it. Instant gratification.
Advent flies in the face of instant gratification. It is properly a season of penitence, of self-examination, as we prepare our hearts for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. One friend of mine suggested that this can even dovetail with our culture’s desire to celebrate Christmas long before the actual feast (by singing carols, etc.) by inviting people to give up the busyness and crazy scheduling that goes with December in favour of celebrating the joy that the season brings. I like the idea, but too often we end up adding “joy” to our calendar, filling it up even more.
Try an experiment: hold you breath as long as you can. When you finally exhale and draw in more air, there is a certain relief, and maybe even exhilaration, that you can breathe again, right? Advent is a bit like holding your breath. When we finally ‘exhale’ at the celebration of the Nativity, there is a real sense of delight – a sense that, I think, is muted when we begin too soon.
Of course, the world’s celebration of the season is not really the church’s celebration. We’re not in it for the dollars and cents (think advertisements, Black Friday and Cyber Monday). But we do have a ‘bottom line’, of a sort, don’t we? We want Jesus to be born in the hearts of people. There are aspects of the world’s celebration that plays into our hands; after all, at what other time of the year do malls pipe good theology through their music systems?
Let Advent be a spiritual discipline for you, as it was intended to be. Wait. Hold your breath. See if it deepens your celebration even more.
All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
And open furrows await the seed of God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for the truth.
-Alberto Taulé, tr. Gertrude C. Suppe