Do you hear that? It's the ticking time bomb set to explode on December 25th. The one that will detonate whether or not the Christmas shopping gets done, the Christmas cards are sent out on time, or the vanilla meringues sag. The one that's turned the most wonderful time of year into a race against time and replaced holy anticipation with high anxiety.
Most of society treats this time of year like an hourglass -- not the slow soap opera version “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” -- but the small one you set before a round of Boggle that leaves you frantically scrambling to find words before time runs out. The sand of our seasonal hourglass drips out all too rapidly, reminding us of the time slipping away; precious time we need not for spending time with one another and enjoying this holy season but for all that we need to get done. Christmas becomes yet another deadline in our deadline-driven lives rather than a joyful moment of expectation and hope.
It used to be that our Advent calendars and wreaths heightened the anticipation leading to the fulfillment of Incarnational joy. Now the opening of doors and the building of light cause hearts to race rather than revel. These time-honored traditions bring more stress than joy. Not to mention guilt for eating chocolate every morning.
We've done this to ourselves, of course. We've lit the fuse and literally bought into the consumerism that drives this season at the expense of our faith. The good news is that there is still hope for us. We can recapture Christmas and savor it as a time of comfort and joy rather than anxiety and stress. It takes a reorientation of our spiritual compass but with some help we'll find that star to guide us toward the manger in way that causes our souls to sing with joy rather than shrink with disquietude.
In Biblical times when people sought to repent and return to the Lord they looked toward prophets. The prophetic message was only effective when a community recognized the need for transformation but I think we can agree that the way we approach Christmas has gotten away from us. Fortunately Advent is dominated by a prophet who calls us back to the basics. You won't find an eight-foot-tall inflatable John the Baptist on your neighbor's front lawn but he looms over Advent like no other figure. John, the forerunner of the Messiah, the one who prepares us for the arrival of the Christ child boldly and loudly proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. During Advent he cuts a path through the shiny external trappings of the season while calling us to focus on the interior essentials of our faith.
The Baptist reminds us this isn't about a so-called war on Christmas; it's about a war for Christmas. He's passionate about the arrival of Jesus because God entering the world in human form is the bedrock of our faith. The Incarnation matters because without it, our faith is merely a house of Christmas cards, capable of being knocked down by Jack Frost's gentlest breath. But with it, the world is transformed into a place where Resurrection glory reigns supreme and we live into our full potential as children of God.
So simply being aware of our need to recapture Christmas is an important first step. It’s an acknowledgment that, to quote the Grinch, “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” It's about recapturing the delight and joy of spending time with one another while welcoming Jesus anew into our hearts and minds and souls. This time of year shouldn't and needn't be about obligatory presents and strategizing over re-gifting scented candles. I’m not saying shopping is evil or that we shouldn't put up Christmas decorations. Hardly. But I am saying it’s so important to have a foot in both worlds; to take time to reflect upon why we’re doing all of this; to think about the meaning behind the madness. Otherwise we’re simply feeding the Christmas-Industrial Complex and missing the larger message of hope and salvation.