[Dave Turner, formerly of the Canadian prairies, now calls the West Coast home, with his wife Liz. He spends his days working for the African Children’s Choir.]
Before I expand, I’ll come clean. I am a Christmas person. I love it. And my wife is worse than I am. Most years, it’s probably somewhere around Halloween that I start humming “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”. On a chilly Saturday in November, you’re likely to find Liz and I walking around the mall, looking at the decorations, and just plain old getting in the holiday spirit. I realize that qualifies me as one of “those” people for some of you, but I hope you’ll forgive me.
I’ve tried hard at times to resist the allure of Christmas. I’ve told myself what a bunch of consumerist claptrap it is. I’ve read and shared great articles on how perpetuating all this “Santa” stuff is actually unhealthy. But inevitably, it gets me. I like the songs. I like the trees. And I’m particularly partial to the food.
I know not everyone’s that way. Some certainly aren’t so fond of it. But I’d be willing to bet that even some of you scrooges out there get hit with a 24-hour bug of “Christmas spirit” at least once every winter.
Most people seem to get at least some enjoyment out of the build-up to Christmas. For some of us, it’s the traditions that make the season so special. For others, our enjoyment of Christmas has recently been refreshed and multiplied as we get to experience it anew through the tender hearts of our children or grandchildren. But even for those who don’t enjoy it at all now, it was probably a different story when they were kids waiting for Christmas—and Santa. And it’s not just Christmas day itself… it’s the whole build-up to it. The anticipation of it.
Our waiting for Christmas is an excited countdown. An eager smile, and one more chocolate popped out of the calendar. The school holiday starts and we know it’s very close now. Our anticipation is plans, preparations, and decorating. It’s an experience that couldn’t be much more different than what Israel was feeling a couple thousand years back as they did their own waiting.
No, waiting for Christ is not much like waiting for Santa.
Every December, it feels more and more like Christmas every day. Even the radio tells us so, as “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” beams through the speakers at the grocery store. The snow gets whiter, the lights get brighter, and all around town, little gingerbread apartment buildings are erected. The countdown to Christmas just gets more and more Christmassy. But for hundreds of years before Jesus came, it probably felt less and less like Christmas with each passing year.
You may know some of the history—a tale of a destroyed temple, capture, exile, a remnant, a rebuilt Temple… and then, what? Israel must have felt close to the coming of the King they had waited for when they finished that second Temple. If they were ever on top of their game, that was the time. But then, a generation died off, and then another, and another…and for over four hundred years, nothing happened. In fact, things got worse. Jerusalem was sacked once or twice. Then along came Roman occupation. The “waiting” of the Jews, beaten down and discouraged, certainly didn’t have much in common with our annual month where the joy steadily increases and then culminates in a day of great celebration.
Our wait for Christmas feels a bit like that climb up the initial hill on a rollercoaster feels (for those of us who actually enjoy those things). The excitement builds and builds until—“Wheeeeeeeee!” In other words–“Oh boy, here it comes!” Yeah, I feel that way every December, sure. “Christmas is coming!” But the Jews’ wait probably felt more like being stuck in a boxing ring with a guy twice your size. Some wait. Mercilessly pummelled, blow after blow, you wonder “When will it end?” There’s no “Wheeeee!”… only the groans of a people straining to keep their hope in a coming King, which probably felt like straining against gravity itself. Psalm 13 comes to mind:
1 How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
Christmas is a season of two very, very different and perhaps contradictory themes. I pray that neither you nor I will get so swept up waiting for Santa this season that we forget that we still live in a broken, groaning world. Once upon a time, a Saviour was born into that kind of misery. On a typically mundane day, in a mundanely typical town, a light shone bright and answered the groans of a people. But the world still groans, and the fact is, even though on December 25 the anxiety of countless children who are waiting for Santa will be satiated, the pains of waiting for Christ will not. The odds that everything is going to be all better on December 25 are not high.
When the anticipation for Christmas is one of excitement and festivity, it’s not easy to instantly switch and really grasp the meaning of Christ’s appearance on earth. It’s difficult to appreciate the significance of Christ’s appearance on earth if there’s no connection in my heart to the groans of His people.
I’m pausing today to reflect on the stark reality of the world we live in. Thousands will die today of hunger and AIDS, and all across the world families are broken, jobs are lost, debt has an unrelenting grip, grief and loss are deeply felt, and alcohol ruins lives. The list goes on. Like ancient Israel, we find ourselves in situations that don’t feel like they’re approaching a resolution. “How long?” Once we’ve allowed ourselves to feel the weight of it, we can relate better with the pain the Israelites felt. The groaning. The need to be saved.
When we look at the reality of our world and feel the Israelites’ pain, we can also feel the real jubilation at Christ’s arrival that Simeon and others felt. He was a devout Israelite who groaned with the rest—Luke 2 describes him as a man who “was waiting for the consolation of Israel”. One look at the baby Jesus, and this man who’d spent his whole life in gruelling oppression praised God and said, “You can take me now”:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
The word that carries the most meaning for me during this season is “Immanuel”. God is with us. He was born on earth to establish His kingdom, and as He left this world He equipped us to advance that kingdom. As kingdom-insiders we experience the same pains that the rest of the people in the world do, but we can also have peace in the knowledge that Christ came. We know that there is hurt but we also know that there is more than what we can see. There is Christ’s kingdom, advancing in this world until the day he makes it all new. And if you’re open to it, I bet you’ll have the opportunity to prove that to people this December by being the vessel through which Christ arrives into their suffering.