Have you ever had one of those Christmases where your entire pajama-clad family is gathered together, the tree is wrapped in lights that shine à la star of Bethlehem, and mugs are filled with hot chocolate and freckled with marshmallows? You know the kind of thing I’m talking about, where the snow is falling silently and you light candles with names like “Burning Christmas Tree Deluxe” to give the illusion that you live in a cabin in the woods instead of a cookie-cutter condo in suburbia? All the brown paper packages are tied up with string and lovingly laid under the tree, and your whole clan is singing carols together around the piano while you unitedly promote a wholesome sense of Pinterest-inspired Christmas joy?
Yeah, me neither.
I’m part of a generation that likes to create false realities on social media; we like to make our lives appear just as glamorous and magical as what we see on TV. And during the holidays, this lust for a movie-scripted life and the desire to be envied is only amplified.
But let’s set all the vicarious living aside for a minute and be real with ourselves. Let’s think about what Christmas is really like. For many, December 25th rolls around and life feels less like Christmas in My Heart and more like Home Alone. Your Great Aunt Bertha is coming and she always wants everything to be just so. Traveling is a nightmare. You accidentally bought your sister a medium sized sweater when she’s an extra small and now she’s offended. You burned the apple pie because you were trying to set the Christmas tree back up after the dog knocked it over. And ho, ho ho—now your dreams of a perfect Christmas are crumbling like a gluten-free fruitcake.1
But life just keeps rolling on, no exceptions for the holiday season.
…your dreams of a perfect Christmas are crumbling like a gluten-free fruitcake.
For some people, Christmas is hard, not because of nosy relatives or rambunctious pets, but because of memories, because of people who aren’t there to celebrate. Last year on Christmas day, I was flying to a memorial service for a girl who died suddenly and tragically at 18. I know Christmas for her sister, my close friend, will never be the same.
The ironic thing is that the first Advent wasn’t exactly merry and bright either. In fact, the wasteful productions we fabricate for ourselves today to celebrate Christ’s birth actually bear little to no resemblance to the holy nativity. When Jesus was born, it was something completely different. It was not a silent night, as the song says.2 The birth of Christ was much more crude.
Now, admittedly, I’ve never had children, but I’ve been to many deliveries and, to be blunt, birth is nasty. There’s lots of blood, lots of screaming, and lots of pain. You’ve got a miniature human being with a head the size of a grapefruit that you’re trying to eject out of your womb from between your legs. My mom says it’s like something is reaching into your belly and pulling your insides out with the force of a backhoe. And when the kid finally arrives, he looks more like a wrinkled, slimy potato than he looks like his parents. It’s just the beauty of this whole miracle of life thing, I guess.
And this is the miracle Mary experienced—in a barn. Barns are gross too. Between the animals, the hair, and the feces, it was a dirty, smelly mess. And the Bible doesn’t make any mention of a midwife, nurse, or epidural. So, when Jesus came, He wasn’t handled with sterilized latex gloves, given all his vaccinations, and put in a warmer. He was wrapped in cloth and put in a feed trough, and the straw most likely wasn’t clean. There weren’t any decorations. No themed tree or lights. No wreath for the stable door. No Advent calendar to count down to the big day. Just a homeless couple and the Son of God getting born in a barn.
…the first Advent wasn’t exactly merry and bright either.
A far cry from what we see today. Ellen White says it was when the time of Advent had arrived that “the deception of sin had reached its height” (Ellen White, The Desire of Ages, p. 36). The people “had chosen a ruler who chained them to his car as captives. Bewildered and deceived, they were moving on in gloomy procession toward eternal ruin,—to death in which is no hope of life, toward night to which comes no morning” (ibid.). Racial tensions were high. There was no social justice. Greed ran the religious system ragged and the people were in despair. Humanity had no hope. Mentally, physically, emotionally, the world was at its worst. And that is precisely when God gave us His Best: He “poured out to us all heaven in one gift” (Ellen White, Steps to Christ, p. 21).
This was the Advent of Christ. And the angels considered it something worth celebrating. Why?
Because, as The Message puts it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14).
Did you get that? God moved into the hood. The Son of God became a permanent part of our family, our tribe.
He moved in at the worst time, so He could truly be Immanuel, “‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23).
God with us in our pain.
God with us in our loneliness.
God with us in our struggle to make ends meet.
God with us in our fight against social and racial injustice.
God with us in our struggle against addiction.
God with us in our loss of health.
God with us when our marriage is on the rocks.
God with us when we don’t want to live anymore.
God with us.
This was the first Advent. He was with us in our suffering so we could be with Him in His glory. Because of His choice to take on our reality—to be with us—He could redeem us and we have the confidence of being with Him at His Second Advent.
We have the hope of hearing “a voice thunder from the Throne: ‘Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.’ The Enthroned continued, ‘Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.’” (Revelation 21:3-5, MSG).
He was with us in our suffering so we could be with Him in His glory.
Immanuel. God with us.
This is the Advent worth celebrating.
- I’ve never actually made a gluten-free fruitcake, because I don’t like fruitcake and I’m gluten-free intolerant. But I’ve seen enough gluten-free food to feel confident in my assumption that this is what would occur.
- Andrew Peterson, “Labor of Love,” Lyricsmode, http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/a/andrew_peterson/labor_of_love.html.