The joke among my kids is that I’m a grinch, for I’m not much for the Christmas spirit. I’ll admit it: they’re mostly right – but not because of the meaning of Christmas, but due to what we’ve made of Christmas. I really struggle with how, as Kathleen Norris writes, “the world force-feeds us merriment and cheer.” The message seems to be that Christmas is about crafting the right experience, having the right feeling – and most of that can be had by spending more money and adding more stress. I think this affects just about everyone, Christian and non-Christian, alike.
When I was a pastor, Christmas eve was one of the most difficult services to plan – because I wanted it to be just the right “experience” for those who gathered. For the regular churchgoer and the person tagging along to keep Grandma happy, I wanted them to go away having encountered Jesus. On the face of it, that’s a good thing. The problem is: I never figured out how to “plan” such an experience. In fact, the harder I’d tried, the less likely it was to work. It’s a funny thing about worshiping Jesus: it’s hard to manufacture.
I remember one Christmas eve, where I thought it would be creative and engaging to do some kind of “skit” to make the story come alive. I honestly can’t remember how it went, but I played the part of the clueless straight man, talking with a biblical figure I can’t remember (Mary? The angel?). I tried to throw in humor while attempting to look at the Christmas story in a fresh way. I apparently tried too hard to make it a unique experience for everyone who gathered, for I had one fellow leader let me know: It just didn’t work.
I look back, and I’d like a re-do on some of the things I did. Not just that Christmas eve, but on many a Sunday where my methods outstripped the message. And I can’t help but wonder: how many of those efforts were about the message, and how many were about me? In wonder if what I tried to do was just a christianized version of what the world tells us we have to do at Christmas: plan for or pay for a way to manufacture merriment. Why didn’t I just trust the powerful truth of the simple story? Why did I think I had to try to tell the story better than the original writers themselves?
But Advent – the waiting and expectation of God’s arrival – can’t be manufactured and isn’t about having the right experience. In fact, as Norris points out, the whole point of Advent is that God comes most clearly, not in our times of highest merriment, but in the depths of our despair. That’s exactly why we need Advent. That’s why the coming of the Christ is so desperately needed: because merriment isn’t enough – we need more than cheer. And so, Norris writes, “When our lives are most barren, when possibilities are cruelly limited, and despair takes hold, when we feel most keenly the emptiness of life – it is then that God comes close to us.”
In the place where we most need him, Jesus comes. In our limitations and our loss, he comes. And I can’t help but wonder: how often do we miss Jesus because we are too busy covering up our need with “cheer”? How often – even in the church – do we settle for an “experience,” when what we need is to be still, and receive the Good News of Great Joy that will be for all the people – that in the city of Bethlehem has been born the Savior. He is the Messiah. He is the Lord.