Tis' the Season

As I write this morning, we find ourselves just a few days away from the arrival of Christmas. The advent season is drawing to a close, and before we know it, Christmas morning will have come and gone.  

The advent and Christmas season is one of the richest traditions that we have been left with as Christians living in the 21st century, and yet, we all know that tradition can easily turn into traditionalism- walking through motions and checking boxes on our way to whatever comes next, with not much thought given. Even Christmas with its vibrant colors and symbols, wonderful music, and staple Scripture readings has the potential to become such an empty occasion. We might ask the question, is it nothing more than that? Should Christians forego it altogether and just celebrate the incarnation of Jesus everyday? Does relegating it to December just devalue it?

While tradition has the potential to sour, it’s worth noting that God himself seems to be one who likes the idea. He offers the Jews a number of feast days and seasons of reflection in the Law. (Genesis 1 even goes as far as to suggest that God ordered his world so that it would highlight and keep mark of such seasons and celebrations- They are mentioned as God orders the celestial bodies in the heavens). So what do we do with tradition? Why did God, and so many church fathers hand them down to us, and what can we do with the next few days in order to make best use of our traditional celebrations?  

Above, the question arose: “shouldn’t we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus everyday”? Indeed we should, in fact that’s the ideal, but what God and so many who have gone before us in church history seemed to have grasped is that it is within our humanity to fail miserably at this. Each day I am inclined to give attention to my own worries, my own responsibilities, my own comforts, and my own rote motions above and before anything more sacred or meaningful. It is who I am as a flawed person. Now I could stand there in moments I realize such and flog myself, trying to beat myself into submission and make myself care about the incarnation more, but we all know that tends to yield little result. What can be done to alter my cares? What can be done to teach me to think about such realities?  

One answer is practice, A.K.A the true intention of tradition. Each year, our Christian calendar sets aside concentrated time for prayerful reflection on the incarnation of Jesus. Within that season we engage in meaningful visual symbols like lighting candles- literally watching light overcome darkness. We eat rich feasts with family and fill the hungry with good things, as Mary so eloquently reflected the Messiah would do. We give more generously as we have witnessed God do, and we wait with anticipation, slogging through the dark cold of winter until the joy of Christmas- the incarnation dispels it all.  

Now if all of that ceases on December 26, then perhaps traditionalism has won the day, but the true intention of these traditions was to be a sort of exercise. In the same way that I might do morning pushups to get my body used to working unfamiliar muscles and make their use more natural (unfamiliar to me at least… I am not exactly a peak human specimen), so tradition places our bodies, hearts, and minds in unusual positions, exposing us to Christian realities, making them more familiar. Our bodies learn, and our hearts follow. Once we step into the new year, we do so with a month of intensive training on how to think about and act on the miracle of the incarnation. The intention is, armed with such joyful discipline as the Christmas season is, that we walk into the rest of our year ready to begin worshiping each day with the incarnation in mind. On the days we don’t feel like it, we consider our prayerful Christmas training, and allow it to carry us, trusting the Spirit to call our hearts into following along. In the cold dark of winter we sang “Oh come emmanuel”, longing for the joy of Christmas, and at a dark funeral in July, I can recall that same prayerful desire for the arrival of Christ to set all things right. On Christmas morning I lit all 5 advent candles as I read the arrival of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, feeling all the wonderful joy of the shepherds, and on a Sunday morning in September, I call to mind that joy in order to sing a little louder along with my congregation. I’ve received my Christmas training, now I use the muscles it has toned.  

And of course, we are all human. The reality is that by November, that joy will begin to be forgotten. My spiritual muscle memory will fail me. I’ll lose connection with my wonder at the incarnation…. Luckily, advent season will roll around again in just a few weeks, and I’ll pick up my training where I left off  Whether you’ve been at it for the last 3 weeks or are just beginning, there’s still time Engage in the traditions individually and communally, and capture those moments of lament, anticipation, and joy. They’ll serve you well in the year to come as you worship the Word made Flesh and live as he did.  

Merry Christmas, Church family!

Dan Vandzura