I never tire of reminding people that Christmas lasts twelve days and it takes all of Advent to prepare for it. More each year I try to observe Advent in the old way, as a time of preparation for receiving Christ anew in to my life. I still enjoy some of the parties and festivity that lead up to Christmas Day, but spiritually I try to keep those in the background and focus more consciously on what the Incarnation (God becoming human in Jesus Christ) means for the world and for me. Im not always as successful as I think that I should be but Im hardly disappointed and I keep trying. Robert Webbers book, Ancient-Future Time is a very inspiring description of the ways in which Christians can use liturgical year observances to deepen their faith and open their lives to Gods transforming power. Ive been using some of Webbers ideas to guide our Prayer at Six meetings during Advent. Heres a summary:
Webber says that Advent is a time when God disturbs the waters of our lives. Originally the church observed Advent as a time of preparation for a renewal of our lives in Gods presence. This involves a conscious effort to become more aware of what it means to live our lives in Gods presence, reflecting on and repenting of the ways in which we have ignored God and hurt others in our lives, and receiving forgiveness and restoration which enables us to live our lives the way they were intended to be lived. The prophet Isaiahs experience of being called by God in the temple (Isaiah 6:1-7) is a model for these three phases of our Advent intentions.
The Gospel of Matthews description of John the Baptists preparation for the Jesus public ministry (Matthew 3) emphasizes our need to examine ourselves before God. He especially warns religious leaders that they must stand before God and meet him personally. They dont gain acceptance based on their religious or ethnic pedigree. Preparation means to make his paths straight, to remove any obstacles and distractions that are between us and an honest relationship with God. Only then can we experience the true joy of Christmas, bearing good fruit.
In a recent sermon on the joy of Christmas, Rob Bell uses the story of the angels appearance to shepherds in Luke 2:8-20 to describe some qualities of the kind of joy that God wants to give us. The shepherds were afraid at the appearance of the angel but the angel tells them not to fear because the good news is of great joy for all people. Joy displaces fear. Fear cannot coexist with joy. Joy, unlike happiness, transcends our circumstances. It can be ours in spite of the difficulty and suffering brought on by circumstances of life (1 Thessalonians 1:6). Joy is a gift. We can ask for it (Psalm 51:8). Its not really something that we can obtain by our own efforts.
Our cultural celebration of Christmas is in many ways at odds with the historic churchs observance of the season so theres a tension that needs to be overcome between the solemnity and mystery of Advent and the business and festivity of the Christmas season. Our observance of Advent and Christmas ought not to be a mere recollection of a past event. We recall the events of the first Christmas in order to relive and be transformed by them. How is this possible? From our perspective, we may see that God is involved in history, but for God the past and present coexist. The effects of Gods Incarnation are still happening. In a very mysterious way those effects are still available to us in the act of remembering and reliving Christmas. God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, becomes incarnate in our own lives, transforming them into his likeness according to their original design. At least thats the intent. As Webber says, The spiritual stimulus of preparing for Christmas by keeping Advent makes Christmas considerably more spiritually satisfying. Christmas is approached with spiritual expectation. It becomes an occasion for a true experience of Christ being born anew in the world and in our hearts, calling us into a deeper commitment to become the new person Christ has called us to become and to live in the expectation of his return (p. 61).
The Incarnation means that God hasnt given up on his creation. He is actively involved in it and pursues us with an undying love, seeking our love in return. It means that this physical world and our physical bodies are important to God. What we do with them has spiritual significance because God has made himself a vulnerable part of his creation, coming to us as a child, teaching us what he is like through the example of a life lived among us, suffering and dying for all our sin and rising again from the dead to show us that he has opened the way to eternal life to us. God isnt as distant from the events of our daily lives as we are tempted to think.
The cultural celebration of Christmas ends after December 25th. For the historic church, Christmas Day is the first of twelve days set aside to ponder the meaning of Christmas for us and for the world. The eternal significance of this is all too easily missed if we are not careful. Theres still time.