In the midst of Advent, we find ourselves in our usual pre-Christmas frenzy of shopping and decorating and looking for Grandma’s recipes. Aside from those few moments spent in worship where we contemplate the meaning of all of it, we somehow find it almost impossible to carry that spirit with us in the workaday world. That world beckons, even as it did 2,000 years ago in quite a different setting.
Christ comes to us today in ways far removed from a little town in a far-off country. We might find it strange that the couple in the Christmas story had to travel to a distant town to register for the census. (We pay our taxes in the comfort of our homes where we also are counted in a census. No donkey needed for transportation and no motel reservations called for.) There are no shepherds in our countryside, only the flock of sheep in the pasture at the corner of Arnold Mill Road and North Arnold Mill Road. There is no shepherd there, and no one among us would even know or recognize a “shepherd.” Instead of angels, we hear the glad tidings in ways unheard of in Bethlehem. Many Biblical scholars remind us that the angels did not sing, delivering their message in words without music. But who among us wants lyrics without a melody? Handel certainly knew how to shout “Hallelujah” in a way that demands an audience while offering the highest form of worship, the worship that comes from grateful hearts for the God-given talents in all of us. And then there are the Wise Men on a mission. Somehow they seem unrelated to the scene, even intruders in the event that would forever change the world. On the other hand, they balance the equation, bringing meaningful gifts, symbolizing by their long journey the measure of devotion and their commitment to whatever lay ahead in the life of the Christ Child.
I love watching children as they begin to sort out all the many ways that we celebrate Christmas. As toddlers, they heard the story of the first Christmas with those sacred characters at the same time they heard about Santa Claus … and all of his characters. A few years ago an image depicting Santa kneeling at the manger made the rounds, leaving a mixed message. But eventually the little ones become adolescents and teens and adults, understanding the message of that first Christmas, and finding ways to properly celebrate the birth of the Savior.
We’ve added so many elements to the basic message, it’s almost like a whole ‘nother holiday. In all of our humanity, have we managed to turn a Holy Day into an unholy season? Has the Virgin Mary’s donkey become a reindeer? Do the Magi’s gifts now come from Amazon? Do we set the scene for the Nativity by decorating every room in the house and every inch of the rooftop and lawn? Maybe not. It’s our human way of commemorating the Main Event. There are no angels speaking to us, no Wise Men (absolutely!) bearing gold, frankincense , and myrrh. No shepherds, no Joseph, no Mary. But the Christ of Bethlehem is with us, in spite of our feeble attempts to acknowledge His Presence. He does not come in the flesh by-way-of Northside Hospital or Holiday Inn, nor is He accompanied by His parents. If there are angels or shepherds, they are disguised as friends or neighbors, ministers, carolers, or Santa’s elves. If there are Magi, unrecognized, they traveled by planes, trains, and automobiles, and sent their gifts ahead by FedEx.
In our longing for the Christ, we search for him with a renewed awareness, finding Him in unexpected places. We see Him in a stranger’s smile in a lunch line at Chick-fil-A. He speaks to us through Charlie Brown’s Linus (and Luke, the Apostle), “For behold I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” We see His hand in every Christmas greeting card, and hear His voice as Woodstock Elementary’s fifth-grade Wildcat Chorus share their talents. We feel His presence as we worship with other believers. And we pray forgiveness as we find pleasure in shopping and partying and overeating, and even in Ugly Christmas Sweater contests. We pray that skeptics among us will overlook any hint of hypocrisy and find, instead, the Risen Christ, no longer in a manger, but indeed dwelling among us in the hearts and lives of His followers. May we be humbled and inspired as each minute in Advent brings us closer to Christmas Day.
After all, unlike the people of Bethlehem so long ago, we know the rest of the story.