“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” - Luke 1:6-7
Yesterday afternoon I took my dog out for a walk in the snow, wanting to get outside to embrace and enjoy some of the daylight before the late afternoon sunset. As the sun rays peaked through the clouds, there were glimpses of blue sky and the snow glistened as the light hit it.
I had just been thinking to myself, ‘What a glorious walk,’ when suddenly my dog yanked on the leash (he saw another dog) and—catching me off-guard—I stepped into a big pile of snow, and I could feel a golf-ball-sized chunk of white slush slowly slipping down the back of my boot.
For the rest of the walk (we were only about half-way around the park at this point), I was forced to ‘enjoy’ the scenery while cringing at the freezing sensation caused by my half-soaked sock. The views were still beautiful, and I could yet enjoy it to an extent. But there was now a distinct discomfort that made the walk more effort than enjoyment.
Perhaps this is an overly simplified analogy, but I think many of us have a similar feeling or experience at Christmastime. We want to be able to enjoy the season, to love all the programs and concerts, to marvel at the lit houses and streets, and to exist in a month of gift-giving, memory-sharing, and food-eating without dampening the mood.
Yet, for most of us, there is a golf-ball-sized inconvenience or hardship that makes the season ever-so-slightly more cold and uncomfortable. It’s the memory of a lost loved one. An unforeseen tragedy. A grief that doesn’t seem to go away. A cancelled trip to see family.
Oftentimes, we want to ignore the ‘inconvenience’ because we prefer to just enjoy the walk. We don’t want to be a Scrooge. We don’t want to be a downer or dampen anyone else’s joy, or—metaphorically speaking—pull out someone’s Christmas lights.
But we also tend to think that it has to be one or the other. We either allow ourselves to be upset about the snow melting in our boot, or we try to ignore it and watch as many Christmas services and Hallmark movies as possible to get ‘in the Christmas spirit.’
Mary and Joseph show us a different way. The scene of Jesus’ birth shows us a different way. It wasn’t comfortable. There were no Christmas lights, gifts around the tree, or holiday tunes playing in the background while the new parents sipped their eggnog lattes.
But there was beauty in the mess. There was mess, and there was majesty.
Advent is a time of tension. It’s a time when we celebrate Christ’s coming while recognizing that He has yet to come again full.
And the fact that He has yet to come in full reminds us that His initial coming wasn’t ‘in full.’ He was ‘fully’ divine—yes. He was ‘fully’ human—yes. But he wasn’t yet on His throne. He hadn’t yet achieved the victory. We celebrate the incarnated Jesus, but we are yet waiting for the victorious Jesus to come back.
And until then, we exist in the tension. We walk around at Christmastime experiencing the happiness and love and being dazzled by lights that brighten up our spirits. Yet we also have loved ones in the hospital. Friends who are struggling. Family members who are grieving.
And so we walk on the path of this tension, knowing that our place as Christians is right in the middle of the mess and the majesty. It’s not only embracing the happy feels, nor is it simply drowning ourselves in the sorrow.
We feel the tension of the already-not-yet—where the ‘already’ is very much felt in the presence of Emmanuel, but the ‘not yet’ feels very distant and we know that there is much to be resolved and healed in this world. We can embrace the joy and all the happy feels while not ignoring the grief that many of us endure. We can enter into grief and lament for the way things are without forgetting that Jesus has come to bring us joy.
We can do both. Might I say, we are called and tasked with doing both.
And may the presence of Emmanuel meet us in the middle. May ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’ be met in Him this Christmas.
An Advent Prayer by Henri Nouwen
Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness,
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, "Come Lord Jesus!'