I’ve always understood this special season conceptually. We take time to prepare room in our hearts and minds and lives to receive a fresh infusion of the Divine, a fresh burst of God’s Light in the winter darkness. But to a certain extent my understanding of Advent has been more theoretical than practical, more about putting up our lights and decorating our tree than actually making more space for God in my life, and for letting the truth of the Incarnation break into my world and change it, change me.
But this year I get it. Because this year, I’m nowhere near ready for Christmas. That holy day, that joyous celebration of Christ’s birth, just seems so far off.
For one thing, the weather is all wrong. Only thirty-four degrees colder and the rain that’s forecast for later today will turn to snow! Forget a white Christmas, maybe this year we can put fresh forsythia blooms in the sanctuary, to complement the poinsettias!
And that traditional Christmas spirit we love so much, the one that sneaks up on us while we’re shopping in the mall, the one that makes us want to sing Joy to the World out loud, in public, and believe in the promise of peace on earth good will to all? Well, to me at least it feels like this year it’s gone into hiding, like there’s as much chance a fight will break out at Barnes & Noble as there is that I’ll find the perfect gift for my brother-in-law.
If I’m honest, part of me is tempted to admit that sometimes Christmas can just be blue, and maybe this is one of those times, one of those years.
But then I think, wasn’t it always this way? Hasn’t it always taken faithful people at least some effort to get to Christmas? And, really, isn’t that at least partly the point of Advent, to remember this?
Imagine how hard it was for the magi to get to Bethlehem. Their only option is to travel at night, in the bitter desert cold. Matthew does not give us their full story (they’re only bit players in a larger story, after all), but what other hardships might they have met along the way? What other obstacles did they have to overcome to get to that stable? A midnight sandstorm that obliterated that famous star, such that they veered dramatically off course? Nighttime bandits who raided their camp and stole all their food, leaving them hungry until they could reach the next town, several days away? A harrowing face-to-face interview with Herod, when their lives possibly hung in the balance? (This encounter actually is in Matthew.)
Or consider Joseph. It’s bad enough that he first gets word that his wife pregnant with a child that is not his – and how could it be anyway, for he is an honorable man. But hard on the heels of that cataclysm announcement, another one comes. This time the angel of the Lord warns him that Mary’s child – his child, too, now – is in mortal danger from, yes, Herod. The young couple are forced flee for their lives and take refuge in Egypt.
What a journey that must have been, Mary pregnant and miserable on the back of a donkey, bouncing over the hard, rutted roads. Joseph keeping watch at every turn for signs of danger, until his nerves are completely frayed.
Then when they finally cross the border they discover they haven’t really made it to safety after all, they’ve merely traded one set of hardships for another, as all immigrants do: Egypt, where they don’t know the language. Egypt, where the food is foreign and the language is unintelligible. Egypt, where their skin and their accents and their heritage cause people to shoot them unwelcoming stares.
Maybe our own journey toward Bethlehem is not so literal, or so harrowing. But if it feels a little more challenging to get to Christmas this year than in years past, maybe it helps to know you’re not alone, that going all the way back to the beginning it has always been this way.
So, let’s saddle up friends. The road ahead may be hard and rutted, the nights dark and cold. But just imagine what awaits us at the end of this journey.