Christmas is messy, don't domesticate it

I’ve always found “Advent” to be a little bit confusing. It’s a wibbly-wobbly time concept: we are heading towards a moment at the same time as we are looking at it recede in our rear-view mirror. We anticipate Jesus’ birth (his advent) in Bethlehem, and start preparing our own celebrations of this in the knowledge that Jesus has already come (and gone). Are we meant to be sad or excited during Advent?

What about Advent 2020, when even sad singing is not generally allowed and the jingle of the shopping mall is dimmed? Some of us in Australia know that we won’t be able to make it home for Christmas or to see loved ones. Maybe the Advent calendar with chocolate consolation continues to be the easy option?

Before COVID-19, we could sing out conflicting emotions during December 1-24 in songs like O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, suspending notes longingly across a minor key as we waited for the King to come (again), and perhaps wondered about it during those 400 (plus more) silent years tucked between the testaments (and between the times).

Is the Christmas event cosy, rugged or excessive? Or everything, all at once?

At the same time, there would be a jingling, joyful soundtrack as we bought presents at shopping malls. We would neatly wrap them in ritual red and green colours that normally sit uneasily across from each other on the colour wheel, in preparation for the apocalyptic tearing apart and the chaotic sea of paper on the carpet under the tree.

Perhaps Advent 2020 is just a fuller unwrapping of what has always been true during Advent: that the Christmas event is complicated. We want to domesticate Christmas, to take it home, to make it familiar, family-friendly, sentimental, traditional, even rustic. But Christmas is about a painful birth, after all, about the hard edges of a world that won’t accommodate perfect love, about killer authorities.

Confusingly, it is also about the joy on the (non-rustic?) faces of the shepherds, extravagant light shows, travelling long distances to a party, thoughtful gift giving, and a heavenly choir singing glory to God and spreading (contagious) peace and joy to all his people.

So, is the Christmas event cosy, rugged or excessive? Or everything, all at once?

We want to understand Mary’s “song” (Luke 1:46-55) as the work of a spontaneous and creative musical genius, but as Alexander Stewart and Andreas J. Kostenberger note in their book The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (2015), it is more likely to be the adaptation of a communal text she already knew off by heart, perhaps polished up a bit before it was written down by Luke.

This shows that Mary’s imagination was formed by the story of God’s people, and the knowledge of the character of God as the central “actor” within this story, able to perform mighty deeds to rescue his people and to bring down any authority. The angel’s message could have made a pregnant, unwed girl wonder whether exile or death was about to follow, but Mary is so trusting of God that she feels she has been blessed and that the part she has been given to play is a divine honour.

Indeed, Mary is glad that God has been “mindful of the humble state of his servant” (Luke 1:48). Her “how will this be?” response to the angel’s message (Luke 1:34) shows that her impulse is not towards unbelief (as it is for Zechariah), but to a careful contemplation of the message and its implications.

In her book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life (2020), Zena Hitz notes that European painters in the Middle Ages and Renaissance often painted the young Mary as a contemplative reader in an enclosed chamber, perhaps with a book in her hand or a stack of books by her side.

We want to domesticate Christmas, to take it home, to make it familiar, family-friendly, sentimental, traditional, even rustic.

While a personal library is not likely to have been an historical fact, it captures the idea that Mary is so steeped in the stories of God and his people that she is able to locate herself within the (literal) birth of a new story as it happens. When Jesus is born, and as she sees him grow, Mary treasures up the things she sees and ponders them in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51), waiting for full revelation and understanding.

However, all is not shiny at Christmastime. Mary is warned by the elder Simeon that Jesus’ special calling would result in a sword piercing her own soul (Luke 2:35). It is what she would feel under the cross, as her son struggled to breathe, and the story looked like it was coming to an horrific end.

But how could she have anticipated this, even with Simeon’s warning? There were already some dreams that had been put to the sword, while she was struggling to find ways to access and feed her homeless son. Was he mad? All the old anxieties about being on the move. Evading killers. Not part of Mary’s princely playbook, so why did these things keep popping up in the script? The song that she had sung at the beginning of it all must have seemed wildly inappropriate.

But, Simeon did build some shininess into Jesus’ story that would have been cause for hope, even for Mary as she stood under the cross: “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2: 30-32, NIV).

Even though Mary witnesses the great darkness, sees her son suffer exile and death, she will be able to see her son as the light-fulfilment of the promise that “all the ends of the earth” would see God’s salvation (Isaiah 52:10). This is Mary’s treasure for all time, and this is the treasure that she shared with others in the first community of believers (Acts 1:14). Luke’s gospel could not have been told without her perspective. Mary’s treasures are a hyperlink within the early gospel web, clicked on and shared as a good-news-hungry audience grew.

What about us? What is our treasure, and where is it located? Should we look for it in a stack of books, or tear off wrapping paper to find it?

This is a bit tricky: the treasure is inside jars of clay, and we, as believers in the saving work of Jesus, are the jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). The jars are not shiny and ornate, or rustic and sentimental.  They will break, indeed perhaps they will be smashed open to reveal the treasure inside. But these jars are full of life, full of the perfect yet vulnerable love that we remember to anticipate during Advent.

So what is the treasure inside the jars? It is the “light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). At Christmas we can remember that God gave us Jesus as the Light that would shine out of the darkness, and that this Light now shines in our hearts.

Perhaps our Advent prayer should simply be:
It’s a confusing mess under the tree, always has been.
Welcome, Lord Jesus, to Advent 2020.
Thank you for being the Christmas Light.
Come back soon.