There were a few years there when I hated Christmas. Sure, I could bop along with the rest of them to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” but I’d had it with the obligatory gift-giving and its accompanying pressure, the crowded parking lots and the way that Target, from Black Friday till New Year’s, becomes a living hell.
Everything—from cookie decorating and eggnog to “Silent Night”—felt tired and overly familiar and had a tinny hollowness to it. I’m not much into presents, so once I grew out of my childlike excitement over Cabbage Patch dolls, the glow of Christmas morning quickly faded.
But this year, something changed. Early in December, I dipped a toe into the season of Advent and ended up fully submerged and swimming in it. Advent—the time of waiting and anticipation leading up to Christmas—is a new concept for a born and bred Pentecostal like me. And as I’ve let myself be caught up in the current of longing and mystery, I’ve also realized that at Christmastime I am caught up in something much bigger than myself. This year, when I sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” or read the Magnificat, wonder surrounds me like a swirling mist as I ponder the mystery of God becoming man, and know that in the pondering itself I participate in an ancient ritual. How did I miss this before? How could I skate over Christmas for 25 years without tripping over the earth-rocking love that makes God become a helpless baby?
I came to this season of Advent hungry, and the sweet, melt-in-your-mouth morsels offered by a commercialized Christmas weren’t going to cut it. Strangely, everything I read about Advent intensified my hunger instead of satisfying it. In her poem, “After Annunciation,” Madeleine L’Engle writes:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
I wanted to clear my heart of reason and welcome this child who is God, this wild presence that shakes the world off its foundations, brings peace like a river, and blossoms into love and joy. In Advent, the Spirit of Jesus has not met my hunger, but met me in my hunger. It is right to be ravenous, he seems to be saying, for the first coming was only the beginning—just enough to whet your appetite.
The other night at my prayer group we went around the circle and shared about the family situations we were going home to for the holidays. Unsurprisingly, no one’s Christmas was shaping up to be ideal. We spilled out disappointments and old hurts and obligatory visits that prickle our spines with dread. And as I thought about this tension, about the wide gap between what is and what we feel ought to be, I thought of how I learned that Advent is not just remembering how the world waited for the coming of the Messiah, but how we still wait for his coming. It is a time to embrace the ache of our lovesick hearts, to rejoice in our hunger pains, to survey the broken mess of our world and know that, because God fully entered into it, he will also fully redeem it.
As we sit in our suffering and know that the God of the universe decides to sit with us in it, we have a truth that is weighty enough to answer our heavy hearts, our loneliness and disillusionment that are intensified during the holidays. Dietrich Bonheoffer said that while God wants us happy as little children, it is the grown-up knowledge of God’s desire to always be with us, the fact that “we are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us,” that brings true joy. “Therefore we adults can rejoice deeply within our hearts under the Christmas tree,” he said, “perhaps much more than the children are able. We know that God’s goodness will once again draw near.”
Indeed, it is now that I am an adult with a broken and aching heart, but also with storehouse of memories of his goodness, that I feel a shiver of joy as I sing, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices…” Maybe those years of my disdain for Christmas were actually growing pains. I was no longer a child and could not be contented with pretty lights and sentimental songs. I sensed there was a river running deeper but I couldn’t yet reach it. Time spent in the weary world became my key to entering the profound mystery of Christmas that thrills me with hope yet never becomes any less mysterious.
Now I know that even though we sing the same songs and practice the same rituals and traditions each Christmas, I do not need to fear contempt seeping from the edges of the holiday’s familiarity. Each year I will approach the season of Advent with a different sigh of weariness, and a different memory of God’s faithfulness. Each year I will choose a different door of the Christmas story, like the Advent calendars we had as children, and I will clear my heart of reason and allow a new strong and sweet truth to bloom bright within me.