Sunday, November 28, 2010

“O Come O Come Emmanuel”: Advent I

I’m reading about one family’s nature-and-woods-and-symbols Advent ritual. The description is well written, the celebration is well intentioned, and the whole thing sounds much more organized than our usual Advent dining-table mess of crayons, song sheets and slightly aged artificial candle wreath. I have no quarrel with thoughtful parents who want to make their families’ holiday traditions meaningful and personalized.

But I’m wondering what, if anything, is wrong with the words I’m reading and the pictures I’m looking at.

I read “the Christ child.” That’s good.

I see pictures of Mary and Joseph. Also good.

So what’s wrong?

I think it over, and it occurs to me that though the Christ Child is named here, he seems still somewhat undefined. Or perhaps just part of the ensemble, rather than front and centre. The trees and the stars seem bigger here than He does.

And I’m thinking that if He is the “reason for the season,” the focal point, then our understanding of the reason must begin with something bigger than a little baby. Something ugly. Something messy. Something that doesn’t fit nicely into candlelight walks and rituals, into firelight and hot chocolate, into perfect Nativity scenes. Something not so easy to swaddle.

Something like sin.

Attempts to edge Christ out of Christmas may be as blatant as political groups banning Bibles; they may be as commercial as a ToyStory advent calendar; or they may be as subtle as an Advent ritual in which Christ becomes only one more thing to be symbolized along with rocks and plants. Or Christmas trees. Or even light and candles, if Christ is not behind and in and over them all. If His coming because of our darkness and sinfulness is minimized. Christ announced the beginning of His ministry by publicly reading a prophecy that said He had come to set prisoners free. Matthew 1:21 says “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.”

Do we need to emphasize this ugliness during Advent? Shouldn’t this be a happy time, an exciting time? It’s not Lent, after all. Christmas is coming. Jesus’ birthday is easy to talk about, sing about (see any toddler Sunday School curriculum for how sweet and simple it can be made). But the reason—that’s not so simple. Not so beautiful. It doesn’t fit so well into our ABCs of Advent.

What if it doesn’t fit, can’t fit, doesn’t need to fit? What if that is the point?

“It seems, then,” said Tirian,” that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places.”

”Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”

“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”—C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

When we sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” tonight, let’s emphasize the name Emmanuel, God With Us. We are singing to the Creator, the Saviour, the Lord. We are not singing to some vague spirit of love, snowfall, family, and Christmastime peace on earth. Because there is no such thing. People suffer at Christmas, sometimes die on Christmas. Wars are fought at Christmas. People are sick and lonely at Christmas. All kinds of evil is committed every single day in the world, Christmas or not. Even Longfellow admitted it:

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Don’t look so much to the creation…or to our creations…but the Creator. Pray for His spirit to come among us during Advent. Thank Him for His gift of the Son, for reconciliation, for restored relationship with Him. And for the work that was accomplished on the cross.

No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.


Nancy said...

Thank you for this beautiful, meaningful post.

Donna-Jean Breckenridge said...

Simply beautiful.

Praying we don't diffuse the story ourselves, as you said. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of which I am chief. That's worth honoring, celebrating, and singing about.

Thank you for this post!

Kerry said...

I like what you have to say here!

Our culture has largely abandoned the tradition of a religious Advent and the secular marketing world is happy to convince us that Advent means chocolate-filled countdown calendars.

I think the Eastern church, where Advent is likened to a small Lent and includes a fast, has an appropriate spirit for this season.

While a "little Lent" is not quite the way we observe Lent in my church (Anglican), there is a decidedly penitent spirit to it. Our family has tried to focus our Advent more on preparing our hearts and minds than "counting down to the big day".

Anne-Marie said...

(visiting through the link at the Common Room)
Thank you for this! There is a passage where Luther writes that the little body wrapped in swaddling clothes is the same one that will be stripped to be hung on the Cross. A friend sent it in a Christmas card one year and I've always remembered it, though I've lost the source.

I think that, along with Advent, there's another antidote to the religious Christmas as a single pretty snapshot, and that's Christmastide. Right after the the charming mother-and-baby scene, what do we commemorate? Stephen, the first martyr; then St John, writer of the Apocalypse; then the massacre of the holy innocents... if that's not enough to make one think about the broader significance of the Nativity, I don't know what is!

Also, on a smaller level, singing all the verses of Christmas carols helps a lot. The salvific reason for the birth of Jesus often comes through.