Guest Post: Zen Hess
Christmas has become a time where children eagerly anticipate the day of gift giving. Maybe better, they eagerly anticipate gift receiving. It becomes quite ingrained in a young child’s memory that there is one day in the year where there will be a whole lot of presents and all they had to do was not burp or fart at the dinner table.
I recall hardly sleeping many Christmas Eve nights. It seemed like I could hardly keep my eyes closed. Unlike some, I believed in Santa for many of my childhood years. My memories are steeped with nights of worthless sleep as I peered out my western window, seeing a tower’s light flashing in the distance. Every year I convinced myself that that light was Santa’s sleigh coming to town. I just knew it was getting closer every minute. Then, sleep would wash over my youthful exuberance, like wave of unconsciousness from which I would wake to the noise of Christmas wreaths banging against my window – certain that it was Santa upon my roof. I would tip-toe to my sister’s room. “Did you hear that?” I would ask. “He’s here! He’s on the roof!” Together, arm in arm, as quietly as we could, we would creep down the steps and peek around the corner of our stairwell wall. There would be crumbs from the cookies we had left, or perhaps a half chewed carrot from the year we tried to help Santa become healthier, and presents were scattered about the family room.
As I grew up, I became aware of the falsity of the American Christmas story; though my ma still puts “From: Santa” on some of the presents that she wraps for us. Maybe it’s her way of telling us not to give up on something so magnificent as a man who would share so abundantly to all the world.
In reading this week’s Scriptures, I found it hard not to feel the milieu of expectation, perhaps excitement at the coming of the Lord, such as that I had for the coming of Santa. Appropriate for the first readings in the church’s season of Advent.
Jeremiah says “the days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made” (33.14) the Psalmist writes, “Do not let those who wait for you be shamed” (25.3); Paul mentions “the coming of the Lord” (3.13); and Jesus speaks about the final things. How does our Christmas reflect this longing?
Christmas, the American Christmas that I have known, is rooted in many non-Christian traditions and symbols. Does this mean that we shouldn’t celebrate? Certainly not. First of all, symbols are symbols because they have adopted a meaning that they hadn’t had before. But secondly, and more importantly, because our purpose is not to celebrate gifts (Rome’s Saturnalia Celebration), hope in an evergreen tree (Egyptian Symbolism) or even believe in a chubby, red-faced Santa (Coca Cola Advertisement).
Instead, we have this annual movement of remembrance to guide our hearts toward celebration of the initial coming of our Lord and to anticipate his future coming.
I remember, as a child, my anticipation of Santa’s coming: leaving him cookies and notes; peering out the frosted windowpanes with ants in my pants; running to my sister; disappointment at never getting to be with or to thank Santa.
And it makes me wonder, what if our whole purpose for having the Advent Season was to recall why we have worked diligently all year long. I wonder if perhaps the advent season is meant to remind us that at the conclusion of Jesus’ mission, the gifts will be received and we will be together at last. It is no longer a celebration of a birth alone, but the celebration of a conclusion that the birth represents.
This seems to have been a focus of the biblical authors as well. None of the Gospel writers focus significant attention on baby Jesus (as is our custom, with the multitude of manger scenes). Matthew gives us the most extensive account of baby Jesus. He tells a Jewish-style birth narrative, not unlike Moses or Isaac, where the hero nearly dies an early death. Directly from the birth narrative he moves into Jesus’ baptism. Luke, the detail-oriented, gives only a portion of his second chapter to the birth. And in Mark and John, the first we see of Jesus is at his baptism.
So, why the Advent season? I propose, one reason for the Advent season might be, that it is the church’s annual volition-driven memorial celebration. Not only to celebrate the baby Jesus, as Ricky Bobby would prefer. But, to celebrate his life as a whole and its ultimate purposes. We celebrate the already (Jesus coming), to remember the “not yet” (Consummation).
Albert Calhoun suggests “celebration can enlarge our capacity to enjoy and serve God.” He then poses the question, “How is your celebration enhanced or curtailed by your ability to remember the past, live in the moment, or anticipate the future”?
It is common to see a shift in the moods of people around us near Christmas. Most people are filled with a tenderness that is nearly nonexistent throughout the rest of the year. I see celebration enlarging their capacity to enjoy and serve. But, I see its short life and shallow depth and wonder if these things follow from only living in the moment of the holiday. What if they were also celebrating a remembrance of the past and an anticipation of the future? Perhaps that joy wouldn’t be quite as fleeting.