For many, Christmas is anything but the “most wonderful time of the year.” Rather, it’s the most excruciatingly, painfully dark time of the year. It reminds them of past “would’a-coulda’s” and “should’ve-been’s.” The gifts received are nothing compared to the treasures lost. Christmas, to some, represents a time of year that’s fraught with feelings of failure and loss and rejection and despair. There’s nothing holly and jolly here. Only the difficulties of a season full of palpable pain and pressure.
For whatever reason, though, it always seems as though Christians get a little more testy during the holidays. Perhaps it’s because they feel so acutely the muffled tension between the overt consumerism of the season with the truth of it all muddied in obscurity. Perhaps they’re inundated with the stresses of impressing family members seldom seen and living up to the socially acceptable standards of gift-giving. In any case, Christmas has become such a commercialized event that we hardly pay any mind to its true significance. Such is why we can justify getting offended at red coffee cups and invocations of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” And though I hardly wish to broadcast curmudgeonly phrases such as “Put Christ back in Christmas” and “Remember the reason for season” — which have, themselves, become religious tropes that aren’t given the slightest credence — there’s something to be said of the angst we all feel during this season of Advent.
The disquietude that’s experienced, though, isn’t merely something that’s conjured up by societal norms and familial memories, it’s inbred in the season itself. The lights, the sounds, the songs, the decorations, the emotions, the traditions — all the trimmings that gild the holidays collide to forge a season that’s teeming with anticipation, and rightfully so. Advent is itself the anticipation of the Incarnation, which is the anticipation of the Crucifixion, which anticipates the Resurrection and ultimate Glorification of God’s only begotten Son. And in this anticipation, we’re most often greeted with messages and songs that appropriately reflect the glory and grandeur of the season.
The fact of Jesus’s arrival in our world is one that remains out of the reaches of human comprehension. The notion that God himself would become flesh, that deity would take on humanity, defies all mortal logic and surpasses the borders of our finite minds. And that’s the point. The anticipation that’s felt during advent is there to remind us that we don’t, nor can we ever, fully understand what God did through his Son becoming a human baby. It’s supposed to be something we marvel at, something that makes our jaws drop with wonder, something that we commemorate and celebrate. Such is why, as Advent comes upon us, that the church ought to relish the remarkable opportunity it has to shine a bright light on the glad tidings of God coming in search of us.
The Incarnation of God in Christ in the world is quite literally the embodiment of the Creator’s grace to his creatures, unsought, unseen, and unstoppable. The tension of Jesus’s descent into humanity ought to be felt and embraced. This is prime real estate for the Spirit of God to pierce our souls and stir us to remember the uncanny nature of his redemption of sinners. For it is in our depravity and darkness that the Messiah comes. He comes to us as we are in the pit of rebellion and vice, not ascending the mountains of virtue. He who once formed worlds and suspended stars and held infinity in his hands now appears as a small, insignificant infant. He willingly stepped into the muck and mire, the trouble and tragedy of a world we perverted, that he might perfect it in his grace. “God in his crooked wisdom,” says Robert Capon, “has not taken the disasters out of life, he has become our Life in the midst of the disasters.” (152)
The remarkable reality of the Incarnation is that its chock full of grace. In this event, that which we anticipate through Advent and celebrate on Christmas Day, is nothing less than God meeting us. This is what advent’s all about: God in Christ coming in search of sinners. He doesn’t beckon us to come to him on the wings of religion. Rather, he invades our irreligion and embraces us with mercy. He doesn’t call for us to shirk our sinful hearts of our own accord. He meets us right where we are, in the midst of our ruined and reckless lives.
Grace does not stand upon the distant mountain-top and call on the sinner to climb up the steep heights, that he may obtain its treasures; it comes down into the valley in quest of him, — nay, it stretches down its hand into the very lowest depths of the horrible pit, to pluck him thence out of the miry clay. It does not offer to pay the ninety-and-nine talents, if he will pay the remaining one; it provides payment for the whole, whatever the sum may be. It does not offer to complete the work, if he will only begin it by doing what he can. It takes the whole work in hand, from first to last, presupposing his total helplessness. It does not bargain with the sinner, that if he will throw off a few sins, and put forth some efforts after better things, it will step in and relieve him of the rest by forgiving and cleansing him. It comes up to him at once, with nothing short of complete forgiveness as the starting-point of all his efforts to be holy . . . It is absolutely and unconditionally free; it comes up to us where we stand; it finds us “in a desert land, and in a waste, howling wilderness.” And there it does its work with us. (Bonar, 62–63, 65)
Unfortunately, we very often leave our recollections of Advent in December. We white-knuckle our passion for the yuletide season during the holidays and then let our commemorations go by the wayside once the 26th day of the 12th month dawns. We go back to our performance-driven worlds, seemingly no different. But that’s what the angst of Advent is all about. It’s there to remind us that that’s the point. Jesus’s becoming flesh should make us both uneasy and unburdened, for the one who made the world has come to set the world free. To bear their sins. And die their death.
The glory of Christ’s coming isn’t relegated to a month on a calendar. It doesn’t belong to the days of December but to the children of God, to keep and to ponder long after the world defiles and forgets its true significance. No passing of time on the calendar should ever cause your soul to devalue Jesus’s becoming flesh and dwelling among us. (John 1:14) Rather, along with Mary, we ought to “keep” and “treasure” the news of the Incarnation (Luke 2:19), remembering why he came in the first place — to seek and save the lost. (Luke 1:46–47, 77–79; 2:11) This year, let the spirit of Advent spill over into the days and weeks and months that follow. Let the Incarnation be your message and mission. Let Immanuel be the primary introduction, body, and application of every sermon. Let the Angst of advent give way to the sweet relief of grace.
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857).
Robert Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989).