On the Advent of Christ
“God has ventured all in Jesus Christ to save us….” –Oswald Chambers
Tomorrow Christians around the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, Messiah of Israel, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Savior of Creation, Son of God, Logos Incarnate, God-become-man. This advent—arrival—and incarnation of the Christ has rightly fostered much contemplation from Christians over the centuries. Ranging from nativity accounts to creeds, and from hymns to Charlie Brown Christmas performances, Christians throughout the ages have celebrated the all-glorious God’s birth in a lowly Judean stable. Building from these statements on the centrality of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, today I offer three suggestions for Christians this Christmas.
Embrace formative traditions.
Most importantly, the tradition—the credo which has been handed down by generations of Christians—that God has come to earth to save His people from their sins should stand in the forefront of our hearts and minds this Christmas season. As greeting cards and radio stations correctly (if somewhat incessantly) remind us, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
But “tradition” takes on another meaning during this season as well, as in the things which we do as part and parcel of Christmas. Making (and eating!) Christmas cookies, fighting the crowds whilst shopping, Christmas caroling, serving at a food pantry, sending an Operation Christmas Child shoebox, attending Advent services, listening to Christmas music on the radio, decking the halls with oodles of lights: these are but some of the traditions which fill our lives in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas.
The best Christmas traditions are those by which we experience God alongside others. For my family, this usually means attending the Christmas Eve service at Valparaiso University’s Chapel of the Resurrection, where we worship, fellowship, and commune with some 1,500 other Christians who are celebrating our Savior’s birth. However you celebrate Christmas, traditions—especially the Great Tradition of Christ’s birth—remain foundational for how we understand Christ’s coming into the world and celebrate that momentous event.
Think hard (about what matters).
In a world full of competing narratives, the Christmas season can be particularly troubling. When every other news story reports murder, war, or senseless violence, it’s hard to meaningfully talk about “peace on earth.” Even within a broadly defined “Christendom” there are controversies which try our minds during the holy-day season. Should we be upset about Starbuck’s latest December-themed cups? Ought one be concerned about the “latest” research which demonstrates that Jesus wasn’t God, wasn’t born of a virgin, and/or didn’t exist at all? And what about that “war on Christmas” that we regularly hear about?
Thinking rightly is difficult enough under regular circumstances, but under the additional stresses and busyness of the Christmas season, things can become downright unbearable. Yet this is when Christians must do their best to love God with their minds, to discern which claims are devoid of substance (no one really cares about the color of a disposable coffee cup), which are confused (no meaningful historical evidence suggests anything about Jesus other than what the Christian Church has confessed about his birth, life, death, and resurrection for the past 2,000 years), and which are worth caring about and addressing (Christmas is about God’s love, not the commercialization of the toy market or Best Buy holiday deals).
Of course, thinking rightly and loving God with our minds during the Christmas season can be made easier when we recognize and reflect upon the truthful traditions of Christmas. Wolfhart Pannenberg once noted that, “People are prone to look for something new, and all too often the new lacks the profound, substantial meaning enshrined in traditional forms.” This does not mean that we should reject out-of-hand every new Christmas tradition, carol, or Hallmark movie. It does mean that we should subject those new experiences and events to thoughtful scrutiny as we think hard about what matters this Christmas. (Sorry Hallmark Channel)
Set intentional time aside for Christ.
Today’s final suggestion calls us to both be intentional with our time and to set some of that time apart for Jesus. If your life is anything like mine, the past several weeks have been utterly hectic: work, Christmas parties, shopping, work, something in your house broke, more work, more shopping, people came to visit you, final projects, more shopping (because you forgot one item at the store!), traveling, and more. Amid this busyness, it’s hard to pause. To take time. To stop. To look outside ourselves. To give thanks. To worship God.
This past Sunday I was reminded of my need to slow down and set aside intentional time for Christ while preparing to sing in our church’s Christmas choir. It was an especially busy morning, as I got up early to finish packing for our trip home for Christmas, then headed off to church earlier than normal to practice for service one more time. My morning was one big series of checklists, on which was the item “Sing in Choir.” In the middle of practicing, however, our choir director reminded us that we weren’t just reciting some words that we had been learning for the past several weeks. No, we were supposed to be glorifying God. Pointing others toward God. Leading people to worship the Great, Glorious God of the Universe who loved us so much that He sent His Son to earth for us.
Singing “Glory to God” could not be a mere item on my checklist. It had to be time which I intentionally dedicated to God, time where my “self” was set aside for the sake of one greater than me. I submit that we all need to foster selfless moments this Christmas, even brief moments of time where we orient ourselves toward Christ in honor, thanksgiving, worship, and service to Him. Those moments could come at any point this Christmas: in the middle of a worship service, while your kids open presents, before anyone else wakes up on Christmas morning, when you’re driving home. Whenever you make the time, commune with Christ this Christmas.
As noted throughout my suggestions to embrace formative traditions, think hard about what matters, and intentionally set aside time for Christ, Christmas ultimately must involve remembering the Good News of Jesus Christ’s incarnate arrival on earth. Which leads me to commend that you end the reading of this article with one more Christmas tradition: the reading of the nativity scene from Luke’s Gospel.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:1-20, ESV)
Image courtesy of Plmthida.