Faith,  Life,  Spirituality,  Theology

Why Christmas Is Just Getting Started

There’s a radio station in our area that starts playing Christmas songs 24-7 on Thanksgiving Day or the day after. The station’s been doing this for several years, providing a soundtrack for the busy holiday season. While I haven’t typically tuned in, this year I did.

I remember I was driving southbound on Michigan Street in our city, heading to work. I was at a stoplight, flipping through the radio stations, impatient that most were on commercial.

And then I landed on the 24-7 Christmas songs station. They were in the midst of White Christmas, which happens to be not only one of my favorite Christmas songs but also one of my favorite movies.

I was suddenly overcome with warm, nostalgic feelings and I knew at that moment that my car radio would be planted on the 24-7 Christmas station for the duration of the holidays.

I’d never done this before. It almost felt rebellious. Yet also strangely liberating. And here’s the thing. I really enjoyed it!

It lifted my spirits as I sang along with classic Christmas songs crooned by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, as well as more contemporary Christmasy songs while commuting to and from work, or out and about town running errands and doing my Christmas shopping.

I even grew to enjoy Last Christmas and a Bruce Springsteen version of Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, both of which turn out to be catchy little numbers.

It would be far too much to say that listening to the 24-7 Christmas station while driving put me in the Christmas mood. But it certainly didn’t hurt.

Imagine my utter disappointment when the day after Christmas I got in my car to head to work and there were no more Christmas songs on the 24-7 Christmas song radio station. They were back to their normal “80s, 90s, and Today” pop programming.

The same station that starts playing Christmas songs 24-7 on Thanksgiving — totally oblivious to the somber and contemplative preparatory season of Advent — cut the celebration of Christmas about two weeks short. The abruptness was jarring to me.

You see, Christmas is more than one day. In the Christian liturgical calendar, Christmas is 12 days. We’re still in the midst of it. In many ways, the party’s just getting started. And I really wanted to hear some Christmas songs on the radio while driving.

Advent: Preparing for Christmas

I’m not sure why I haven’t typically listened to the 24-7 Christmas songs radio station before this year. After all, I love Christmas. The entire holiday season from Thanksgiving through Christmas and into New Year’s is my favorite time of year.

Maybe it was because I had a weird curmudgeonly aversion to enjoying Christmas songs before it was actually Christmas. I was determined to observe Advent — the four weeks preceding Christmas in the Christian liturgical calendar — and then celebrate Jesus’s birth.

I didn’t grow up in a liturgical church tradition. I didn’t even know what Advent was until I was 30-years-old and pastoring my first church. But once I began learning about and experiencing the formative rhythms of Christian-year spirituality, I was all in. I felt as if I’d discovered something profound that had always been lacking, but for which I somehow intuitively yearned.

The Christian liturgical year tells the cosmic redemptive story God’s unfolding in history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We discover the deepest meaning and purpose of our own story as we immerse ourselves in that metanarrative, aligning ourselves with God’s purposes for our lives and the world.

The annual liturgical journey that begins with preparing for Jesus’s arrival, celebrating his birth, continuing through his life and ministry, and then culminating in his passion, death, and resurrection, takes us on a spiritual pilgrimage. It’s a pilgrimage that shapes us to live and love in the way of Jesus.

Advent, like the other seasons of the Christian year, has it’s own rhythms and themes, even it’s own songs and hymns. I think part of my aversion to listening to the 24-7 Christmas songs radio station before Christmas was wanting to live into the different spiritualities of Advent and Christmas.

Jesus is coming so repent!

On the one hand, Advent is dark — literally and metaphorically — and contemplative.

The season invites us to consider all the ways we fall short and are in need of redemption. Advent Sunday lectionary texts like John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness smack us in the face and confront us with our sins. The fact that John preached his message of repentance to his fellow Jews and even the religious leaders means that no one is exempt. We all fall short.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” thundered the Baptist. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (see Matthew 3:7-10).

I don’t like this message. It makes me uncomfortable. Also, it doesn’t really go with Jingle Bells, All I Want For Christmas Is You, or Last Christmas; three of the more popular songs recurring on the 24-7 Christmas playlist.

Nevertheless, I know it’s a message I need to hear. I like to think of myself more highly and more holy than I actually am. A pastor of mine used to say that we have an incredible ability to deceive ourselves. I think he was right.

The church reformer John Calvin was on to something in his estimation of the human condition when he observed:

“I know how much nicer it is for men to be allowed to recognize their gifts and praises, than to see and understand their poverty, shame, vileness and frailty. There is nothing our mind desires more than to be wooed by honeyed words and flattery … For just as men have a blind and inordinate love of themselves, they are easily persuaded that there is nothing in them deserving of blame.”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, a new translation of the 1541 Institutes, 29-30

I hate to admit it, but that’s an apt description of me. Stinkin’ Calvin. Why did he have to be so perceptive?

I don’t want to think about my wretchedness. Especially during a wonderful holiday season leading up to Christmas!

I don’t want to let go of my preoccupation with and obsessive thoughts about self-concern, self-image, and self-gratification. I don’t want to be confronted with my pride and arrogance, anger and envy, covetousness and lust.

But I know I need to. And I know I need to repent. The season of Advent creates intentional space for me to do that.

Hope, expectation, and longing

Advent is also a season of hopeful expectation, longing, and anticipation as we prepare for the coming of Christ into the world. Light is coming to shatter the darkness. Our Savior is soon arriving and our liberation is nigh. But not yet. That’s Christmas.

Advent is about waiting and preparing. And so we sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel“, knowing that it’s we also who desperately need to be ransomed from our bondage to sin and death.

We also sing Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, soaking in the beautiful Gospel story of God’s cosmic redemptive drama culminating in the person and work of Christ:

Come, thou long-expected Jesus / Born to set thy people free / From our fears and sins release us / Let us find our rest in Thee

Israel’s strength and consolation / Hope of all the earth Thou art / Dear desire of every nation / Joy of every longing heart

Born Thy people to deliver / Born a child and yet a King / Born to reign in us forever / Now Thy gracious kingdom bring

By Thine own eternal Spirit / Rule in all our hearts alone / By Thine own sufficient merit / Raise us to Thy glorious throne

I wanted to somehow live into the reality of Advent spirituality and keep it distinguished from Christmas. I think that’s why I typically didn’t listen to the radio station playing Christmas songs 24-7. It was also my weird silent protest against a consumerist culture that rushes from frenzied Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping to Christmas Day without the quiet, contemplative preparation of Advent.

There’s probably more than just a bit of self-righteous piety in there. Trust me, I totally get the irony, especially given everything I’ve already written about repentance. What can I say? I’m a mishmash of mixed motivations and desires.

The 12 Days of Christmas

The other day I was scrolling through Facebook and came upon a post from my cousin, who is a devout, practicing Jew. She’d written:

It’s still Hanukkah! #LuckyJews

I loved this. And it got me thinking that it’s also still Christmas. So I hit the “Like” button and commented, “It’s actually still Christmas too! … I’m contemplating writing a blog post about that.”

She “Liked” my comment back. And so here we are.

After Advent comes Christmas. And not just Christmas Eve on December 24 and Christmas Day on December 25. Those are just the beginning of the Christmas season.

Rather, in the Christian liturgical year, Christmas Day kicks off a 12-day celebration that lasts until Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany, with it’s the annual retelling of the story of the Magi, celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

The one or two Sundays between Christmas Day and Epiphany are sometimes called Christmastide. We’re currently in the midst of Christmastide. Which means the Christmas party’s still going.

Joy to the World! The Lord has Come! Let earth receive her king!

The cycle of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany is sometimes referred to as the cycle of light. These seasons go together.

In Advent, we wait in hopeful anticipation and expectation for the coming of Christ. At Christmas, we rejoice and celebrate his arrival. During Epiphany, we manifest the good news to the world that a new day has dawned because of Christ.

As the late theologian Robert Webber explained, “God has come. The promise of old that the world will be rescued from the tyranny of evil has now been made real” (Ancient-Future Time, 36).

These three seasons together — this cycle of light — invites us to an incarnational spirituality of living and loving in the way of Jesus. Even as the light of Christ shattered the darkness and the darkness cannot and will not ever overcome it, so we too are called to be lights to a world desperately in need of hope and healing.

The prayer for this past Sunday — the First Sunday After Christmas — in the Book of Common Prayer captures the spirituality of the season well:

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

I need this reminder and encouragement. Especially during wintery days that can be cold and grey after the stress, hustle, and bustle of the holiday season. I also need to be reminded that there’s another way to live than succumbing to the relentless pace of the world — rushing from this and that, and from one holiday to another.

Christian-year spirituality helps me do that. It provides a counter-narrative and alternative way of being in the world. It challenges me to remember that I’m not the center of things. That, rather, I’m a very minor character in a much larger plot. Nevertheless, I still have a vital role to play as an agent and ambassador of Jesus’s kingdom vision of love, joy, and peace, mercy and compassion, justice and inclusivity in my various spheres of influence.

Living into the spirituality of Christmastide points me beyond the Christmas season to how I order my life and live throughout the entire year. After his transformation in Dickens’s A Christmas Carole, Scrooge promises to “honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

Christmastide extends the celebration and joy of Christ coming into the world and invites us to do the same — to honor Christmas in our hearts and try to keep it all the year. I don’t know about you, but I need to do that more and more.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! May your life be filled with abundant joy, peace, and blessings in the coming year!

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