Christmas wishes or Advent hope?
Photo by Dan Kiefer on Unsplash
I wonder if, over the years, many Christians here in America mistook Christmas wishes for Advent hope.
When I was a kid, I looked forward to September for three big reasons: The Christmas catalogs from JCPenney, Montgomery Ward, and Sears came in the mail. As soon as I saw one of those catalogs on the kitchen table, I tore it open like a starving man tearing into a bag of bread. Within minutes, I found and circled the toys I wanted for Christmas.
Once the Christmas catalogs came, I studied them daily as if they were holy books. As soon as I came in the door from school, I found the Christmas catalogs and spent hours staring at the toys. Dreaming. Longing. Wishing.
It got so bad that Mom started hiding the Christmas catalogs when they came each September. She didn’t us look at them until after Thanksgiving.
What I remember about looking at those Christmas catalogs is how I just knew that I would be happy if I got the toys that I found in those pages.
I also just knew that I could not be happy if I didn’t get those toys!
Once I had images of those toys dancing in my head every day and every night, I felt like I would just die if I didn’t find them under the tree on Christmas morning.
Santa Claus did bring me a lot of the toys I circled in the Christmas catalogs. He also did not bring some of the toys that I thought I just had to have.
You know how things turned out. I wasn’t happier or more alive because I got the toys I wanted. I didn’t die and my life was not a great tragedy thereafter because I didn’t get some of the toys I wanted.
But I, like so many Christian kids growing up in America in the 1980s and 1990s, grew up thinking of Christmas as the time of year when my wishes are supposed to come true.
And, like so many Christian kids growing up in America in the 1980s and 1990s, I formed a mind that believed that I had to get what I wanted for Christmas or I could not be fully alive nor fully happy.
I’m afraid that what I learned about Christmas as a child taught me something else: Being alive and happy means getting whatever I want whenever I want it.
I say that I may have been like “so many Christian kids growing up in America.” By that I mean Christian kids who grew up in families that had means to give their kids most of what they wanted for Christmas. In all my childhood years, Santa Claus never failed to bring my sisters and me that one “big thing” for which we wished.
At the same time, I know that other Christian kids in America did not experience Christmas the same way. Those kids grew up in families that did not have the means to make their wishes come true. So I wonder what those kids learned about Christmas that I did not learn about it.
For those of us who are used to getting what we want for Christmas, I see a mindset that is a lot like the one that I had as a kid.
That is: Christmas is about my wishes coming true.
Most often and for most of my life, I think those wishes were for stuff, things.
The pandemic is a curse on the entire human family, but Christianity is a way of thinking that turns curses into blessings. Our entire faith forms around the execution and public shaming of our Founder.
One of the blessings of the pandemic is that it may be helping Christians in America see the difference between Christmas wishes and Advent hope.
For two years now, many of us are making the choice to give up the customs and the stuff that we thought we had to have for Christmas. For two years now, many of us are making the choice to give up on getting our Christmas wishes.
This is important for two reasons.
First, Christians are people who obey and practice three basic commands from their Christ: Love God (Gospel of Matthew 22:37), love neighbors (the people around us) (Gospel of Matthew 22:39), and love each other through service and submission (Gospel of John 13:34). I don’t think of these commands as One, Two, and Three; I think of them as a trinity that defines and forms the Christian community and each Christian life. We cannot obey one of these commands without obeying the other two.
The pandemic is one of the greatest opportunities that Christians in America have ever had to obey and practice the three basic commands of our Christ.
For those of us who see the pandemic through the lens of these three commands, we get vaccinated, keep our distance, and wear our masks as acts of love, service, and submission to those around us. This is how we imitate our Christ.
This is not easy to do because of what we have to give up to do it.
That brings us to the second reason that it is important that we are giving up our Christmas wishes: We have reason and room to learn about Advent hope again.
One of the things that strikes me about the Nativity story is how awful it must have been to be there. I do not want to know what it is like to be nine months pregnant and have to ride 97 miles on a donkey. I do not want to know what it is like to ride those 97 miles on a donkey and then not even be able to find a comfortable, private, quiet, safe place to sleep for the night. I do not want to know what it is like to give birth, let alone give birth in a barn. I do not want to know what it is like to live with a newborn baby in a barn in a strange town far from home. I do not want to know what it is like to have to flee for my life in the middle of the night because the government is coming to take my baby from me. I do not want to know what it is like to live in a refugee camp in a foreign land far from home.
When I hear the Nativity story, it seems safe to say that not one of Joseph or Mary’s wishes came true (except for the safe delivery of a healthy baby).
I never thought about that until 2020, when we chose to give up many of our Christmas customs for the health and safety of our church, community, family, and friends. I thought our Christmas would be bad until I thought about what Christmas was like for Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.
So I had no choice but to think about Advent hope. That is what we have left when we cannot count on our Christmas wishes.
In fact, the Christmas story is not the story of wishes coming true; it’s the story of hope that keeps hoping in the darkest and hardest of times. The original Christmas story is not the story of everything going right; it is the story of surviving when everything is going wrong. It is the story of people putting one foot in front of the other as they follow a distant light.
We have no hope if Christmas depends on our wishes coming true.
As Christians, then, we need to choose to practice hope this Advent and Christmas. Hope is not about plans turning out the way we want them to turn out. Hope is not about getting the stuff that we want. Hope is not about things “getting back to normal.”
These are all wishes.
There is no faith in them.
Hope, however, is choosing to believe that joy and life and peace are here and will be here even in the darkest, loneliest, most uncertain times.
Hope is celebrating, and giving thanks for, the sure life and love of God that no circumstances in the world can bury, kill, or take away.
Hope is what sets us free to give all of our love away and submit ourselves to the needs and wants of others because we know that God is the giver of all good gifts (Letter of James 1:17) and he will not let us down.
I leave you with this thought from the ancient Christian teacher, Paul of Tarsus:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways (First Letter to the Corinthians 13:11).
My fellow Christians, let us grow up and mature in faith. Let us leave behind Christmas wishes and learn Advent hope.
Grace and peace.