Wednesday, December 22, 2004

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

The countdown is getting mighty low; there are only three more days until Christmas. The presents are wrapped. The cookies are baked. The menu for Saturday is all set. Countless trees and bushes in our neighborhood and all over this city have been overlaid with nets of light. Handrails and windowsills are aglow. Nodding reindeer, tree-shaped blue spirals of light, and electric icicles light up the night. It’s tacky, but it’s beautiful. Shopping plaza parking lots are crowded. Shoppers are tired and irritated. Shelves are sparsely stocked as the week winds down. I’d heard it said that “it’s the thought that counts,” but from the looks on some faces, the only thought that counts is to just get it all done before Christmas Eve and then get back to normal life. The thought is to do all the shopping, cooking, packing, traveling, hosting, gift-giving, partying, and whatever else is demanded of us, but no thought is given to pausing for enjoyment, wonder, and marveling at what is actually being celebrated three days from now. The thought is: “Only three days left. Thank God it’s almost over.”

At noon today, the four of us sat in a beautiful, warmly lit sanctuary in uptown Charlotte for a quiet Christmas devotional where those same words - "Thank God, it's almost over," mean something entirely different. The preparations are winding down, but that realization is cause for exaltation and not exhaustion. Soon we will move from the preparatory, waiting time of Advent – God is coming - into the exultant, celebratory time of Emmanuel – God is with us. I go from waiting for love again to be born into a time of receiving the gift of love, the gift of peace, the gift of time with family and friends, and above all the gift of the birth of the Savior. Joy to the World, the Lord is come.

Last night, I spent nearly half an hour working on a writing assignment. The assignment was to list all the people whose voices ring in my ear when I write. I was supposed to write the names of books and authors and friends and family and teachers and people dead and alive, real and imagined whose influence flows over, through, and around me whenever I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I named specific friends whose approval I seek. I named specific English and Political Science professors whose high marks I coveted. I named specific groups of people that affect my life in one way or another: Republicans, Democrats, peace-lovers, war-mongers, homeschoolers, pastors, priests, laypeople, Americans, Spaniards, Italians, northerners, southerners, neighbors, Christians, non-Christians, theists, atheists, friends, family, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws, coaches, teachers, students, writers, and many others. The list flowed from one page onto another. When I finally put my pen down, I had to smile. It’s a wonder that I write anything at all with that cacophony of voices constantly piping up with criticism and skepticism. Sure, some of them encourage and support, but most are silently sitting by, reading over my shoulder, shaking their heads and “tsking” in disappointment at how much I am not saying, how much I should have left out, how twisted and biased my writing is, and the like. Do you hear what I hear?

As I write about what Christmas means to me, I hear some of those aforementioned voices telling me to keep silent about my faith; it’s personal and no one else cares or needs to know what I believe. I hear others telling me to be more blatant and straightforward about my faith; it’s nothing to be ashamed of and I’m too mealy-mouthed in how I express myself. I hear still others who say that the story of the Virgin Birth of Christ is a nice fairy tale that provides an excuse for overeating and excessive spending at the end of the year. While I heartily disagree with the fairy tale critique, I agree with all the other voices that I hear.

Yes, millions of people around the world overspend and overeat during this time of year without giving much thought to the true meaning of Christmas. I don’t think I’d spend so much time and money and stress on a holiday I don’t believe in, on a celebration of something that means nothing to me. Why bother? I realize that millions of people don’t celebrate Christmas at all; Kwanzaa will begin the day after Christmas and continue through New Year’s Day. Jews celebrate Hanukah. Then there is the Winter Solstice. After a few moments of contemplation, I found a curious intersection between several of this month’s holiday celebrations. Hanukah celebrates the light that God provided when the people of Israel should have been in darkness. God extended the life of the oil that kept their lamps burning and His people gained victory in a decisive battle. After the longest and darkest night of the year, the Winter Solstice signals the coming of new light, of longer days, and shorter periods of darkness. Those of us who celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas know that we who have walked in great darkness have seen The Great Light of the World. We all want to walk in the light. We put lights on our trees, in our windows, and pray for that light to guide us on our way as we walk in the darkness of war, poverty, loneliness, fear, separation, and sorrow that overshadow our world. We are all seeking light and life and joy and peace on earth and goodwill to all. So, come let us adore Him.

I have reflected of late on the lyrics of one of the songs from our church’s Christmas play a few weeks ago. Young Mary and Joseph looked up and sang prayerful solos about what the world would think of the magnificently mysterious child soon to be born. And then as a duo they asked the question that has plagued all of humankind ever since that first Advent over 2000 years ago, “Isn’t this a strange way to save the world?” Yes, indeed. Nonetheless, for me, these past four weeks have been about making room in my heart, in my home, and in my life for the One the angels told the shepherds about. I have read and reread the story of the annunciation, the birth, the wise men who followed the star and found that Baby lying in a manger, and bowed down to worship Him. I have spent hours pondering, singing, and talking about the story of God sending His Son in the form of a baby, born in a stable in the village of Bethlehem. Glory to the Newborn King!

The volume of the chorus of voices in my head increases. Heads wag and fingers point. Skeptics turn away in disgust. But in my heart, there is peace. In my life, darkness gives way to the Eternal Light of love and hope and joy and redemption. There are only three days before Christmas and then an eternity to celebrate.

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