Advent, Getting into the Spirit of Christmas and the Arrival of the Now but Not Yet Kingdom

 


What exactly is this thing that we call “the Spirit of Christmas”? We’ve all heard of it, and most people certainly try to get into the Spirit of Christmas (or the Christmas Spirit) as we head into Christmas. We know that Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas all the year round, which is presumably the Spirit of Christmas, but what exactly is it that he kept?

G.K Chesterton tried to define the Spirit of Christmas in his book, The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, but found it was easier to describe how people falsely try to create the Spirit of Christmas by keeping the externals while ignoring the essentials.

I have rather rashly undertaken to write of the Spirit of Christmas; and it presents a preliminary difficulty about which I must be candid. People are very curious nowadays in their way of talking about “the spirit” of a thing. There is, for example, a particular sort of prig who is always lecturing us about the spirit of true Christianity, apart from all names and forms. As far as I can make out, he means the very opposite of what he says. He means that we are to go on using the names “Christian” and “Christianity,” and so on, for something in which it is quite specially the spirit that is not Christian; something that is a sort of combination of the baseless optimism or an American atheist with the pacifism of a mild Hindu. In the same way, we read a great deal about the Spirit of Christmas in modern journalism or commercialism; but it is really a reversal of the same kind. So far from preserving the essentials without the externals, it is rather preserving the externals where there cannot be the essentials. It means taking two mere material substances, like holly and mistletoe, and spreading them all over huge and homeless cosmopolitan hotels or round the Doric columns of impersonal clubs full of jaded and cynical old gentlemen; or in any other places where the actual spirit of Christmas is least likely to be. ~ G.K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I am a Catholic

His difficulty is understandable. Ask someone you know what she does to get into the Christmas Spirit, there is almost no hesitation to share a list of familiar Christmas activities. For many, getting into the Christmas Spirit involves decorating the house, hanging the stockings by the fire and putting up the tree. For others it is those delicious sugary Christmas cookies. For still others, getting into the Christmas Spirit may involve reading Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to their kids; while for many others it is reading the account of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke (or, at least, listening again to Linus reading the word from Luke 2 in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The list is practically endless, and for many getting into the Christmas Spirit involves caroling or shopping or crafting or candles or parties or helping the poor or a combination of several of these things.

It is also understandable that the list will differ depending on whether the person answering is a Christian. After all, it is still the case that most people in America would include going to church on Christmas Eve as part of the rituals of the season – even those that aren’t particularly religious often go to church because they go to be with grandma or their parents. But few non-Christians include devotional time with God – something that several of my Christian friends would include as an essential on their lists of getting into the Christmas Spirit.

But regardless of whether they are Christian or not, when you ask your friends of family to define what the Spirit of Christmas is, most side-step. What is this thing that we are trying to “get in”? Some respond “a feeling of peace on Earth, goodwill to men,” quoting from the aforementioned Gospel of Luke. Some express it as a time to slow down and re-experience the “magic” of Christmas. But regardless of how many people you ask, you will find that there is no clear answer – and the answers are even more varied for those who are not Christians. Seriously, try it. I did.

It seems that one commonality among many – as reflected in our Christmas celebration – includes reminiscing about Christmases past in an effort to recapture the excitement and wonder of Christmas that many experienced as children. Few think back to childhood without recalling the magic that came from opening Christmas presents, caroling at the neighbors’ houses or waiting for the visit from Santa Claus. It was a time of innocence, and many of us remember it with great fondness.

Even many of our favorite secular Christmas songs encourage looking back or remembering feelings associated with Christmases past. Consider songs like White Christmas (“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas/just like the ones I used to know”), The Christmas Song (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/jack frost nipping at your nose/yuletide carols being sung by a choir”), and Silver Bells (“Christmas makes you feel emotional/it may bring parties or thoughts devotional”). Much of our Christmas iconography reaches back to what we romantically recall as more innocent times as represented by Dickens’ Christmas villages or model train tracks around the tree.

In other words, much of our Christmas celebration is based in nostalgia and is aimed at invoking a mood. And in many ways, our efforts to get into the Christmas Spirit is an effort to capture a feeling of nostalgia for simpler, more magical times – a connection with Christmases past.

But it is my belief that focusing back to Christmases past is the opposite of what we ought to be doing to try to get into the Christmas Spirit. I say that because the time to get into the Christmas Spirit in the church is the season that is called Advent, and it is not the time to dwell on the past.

For those unfamiliar with the liturgical year, Advent is actually the first season in the Christian calendar. It is the four weeks heading into Christmas and is a time of preparation. In many churches, it is celebrated by lighting candles representing (depending on the tradition) hope, faith, joy, peace, love, purity and the Christ.



However, one thing that most people (including Christians) miss is that Advent is decidedly not a time for looking back. It is a time of looking forward. The word “Advent” itself comes from the Latin word “adventus” which means “coming.”. It is a time to look forward to the coming of Christ – not backwards with nostalgia.

But, some might say, Christians believe Jesus has already come – that is an event in the past. Well, yes and no. You see, Advent is a time to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ – but not just the baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12) that is the heart of the celebration on December 25. It is also about getting our hearts ready for Christ to come again in His full Glory. As stated on Christianity.com:

Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days” (Acts 2:17, Hebrews 1:2), as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom. The church is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis, they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people.

The article quoted above is pretty good, but misses the point when it says the church "looks back upon Christ's coming." Actually, Advent looks forward to the birth of Christ even though it already happened more than 2,000 years ago. The Advent season is about getting our hearts ready to welcome anew the Baby in the manger, but not in some sentimental sense of looking back at a quaint manger scene which is what dominates much of our Christian Christmas celebration. Advent is about looking forward once again to the greatest gift of love that God bestowed upon us – the gift of salvation that is present and living. Christmas is a time of joyous celebration for that reason. But Advent is also about looking forward to the Second Coming of that same Child, but this time in His full power and might!

Advent (and Christmas, for that matter) is a time to celebrate the Kingdom of God – the kingdom that is both now, but not yet. The kingdom of God broke into this world when Jesus was born, lived, was crucified, died and resurrected for our salvation. When Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), it was. Evil and death were both defeated and Jesus is now reigning at the right hand of the Father. But at the same time, we know it is not finished yet in this world because we continue to see evil in our world and we all struggle with death. Jesus’ victory and his Kingdom are both now, but not yet.

In the same way, Advent is the now, but not yet season. Jesus has come and we celebrate his first coming by preparing our hearts for that coming as if it were brand new again. But it isn’t the end of what we prepare for during Advent. We know that He is coming back. This Second Coming – the not yet part of His Coming – is what we ought to also be in preparation for during this season.

And that, my friends, is how we get into a true Christmas Spirit. But what is this Spirit of Christmas that we are trying to enter? To answer that, we need to ask the same question Charlie Brown asked in A Charlie Brown Christmas – “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me the true meaning of Christmas?” And Linus does: The true meaning of Christmas is the birth of the Savior as a baby in Bethlehem. It is the start of the giving part of John 3:16, i.e., “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.” It is the beginning of the Now but Not Yet Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that is based on God’s perfect, unrelenting love towards us.

To truly get into the Christmas Spirit requires that we follow suit. It is a time of introducing and sharing that Kingdom of God through loving any who will receive it. It is a time of giving gifts. It is a time of baking cookies (nothing says love more than a hot chocolate chip cookie). It is about sharing the gift of music, the gift of time, the gift of service.

But doing these things absent from the underlying meaning of Christmas – the celebration of the birth of God’s gift of salvation, is no more than a means of getting into the mood of Christmas. That is not the same as the Spirit. The mood fades when the cookies burn or it doesn’t snow on Christmas Day or when the presents have all been opened. The Christmas Spirit continues despite what can go wrong because it is rooted in the eternal – the eternal love of God.

The true Christmas Spirit is reflecting the love that God has first given us to those around us even when the world does not return that love. And the best way to get into this Spirit of Christmas is to make the Christmas season real by preparing our hearts for the “Now but Not Yet Kingdom.” We look forward to His Second Coming by preparing to celebrate the First Coming.

So, go ahead and watch a Christmas movie. Go ahead and decorate, bake yummy Christmas cookies, hang your stockings and decorate the tree. All of these things are good in the sense that the serve as reminders of what the season is about. But please don’t take a feeling of warm nostalgia for Christmases past as the true Spirit of Christmas. That is keeping the externals while sacrificing the essentials.

Rather, get yourself into the true Spirit of Christmas by knowing that God is real, and it is the coming of His Kingdom that we celebrate. Focus on seeing Christmas as the time to prepare your heart and your thoughts for His Coming – both the now, but not yet. Then share God’s love with those around you – especially those who are not easy to love. God knows that they aren’t lovable but he loves them, too. (By the way, the same goes for you, too – God loves you even though you aren’t particularly the most loveable person, either.) If you remember that God’s plan of salvation is the real essential of Christmas, you, like Scrooge, will find it easy to “keep Christmas well” the whole year around.

 

 

Comments

good post Bill. the point of Christmas, sharing God/s love by celebrating the incarnation.

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