Out of Step
My family’s season starts on the first Sunday of Advent. We go up to Brookhaven Christian Church, where we buy our tree. We put it on a stand, but we leave it out on the back deck, undecorated. We also put out our Advent wreath that day with its five candles, as well as the olive wood nativity set we bought in Bethlehem some years back. Each day, we add something to the scene. We start with the wooden animals, but there’s only about two or three of those, so pretty soon we are adding toy animals – tigers, elephants, ladybugs, dinosaurs – somehow a centaur and Iron Man both end up part of the scene, too, by the time it’s finished.
Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph make their way across the house, a little bit each day, arriving on December 24. That’s also when the tree comes inside and gets decorated, so it really does feel like Christmas is almost here. Baby Jesus gets to the manger on December 25, way ahead of the kings, who are still moving across the floor until Epiphany on January 6. On January 7, the decorations get put away, the tree goes to the curb, and the season comes to a close.
We initially started this as our own little feeble protest against the secularized, commercialized Christmas. It seems that every year, the season starts earlier and earlier. Advent simply doesn’t exist at all, and the twelve days of Christmas is just a song that has too many verses. You have no doubt noticed how successful our protest has been, making no difference whatsoever.
Over the years, though, our initial reasons behind these traditions have faded as the traditions themselves have revealed new meaning for us. We light the Advent candles and read readings together each night, a time of closeness and reflection. As the stable gets more and more crowded, our anticipation builds and builds, even though the major players haven’t yet arrived.
Christmas Eve is the transitional moment from joyful expectation to outright celebration. The twelve days of Christmas get their full due as we enjoy the season as fully as possible. And here’s a little pro tip: if you send your cards before January 6, they’re still Christmas cards.
What it all means is that our season ends up just a tiny bit out of step with others. And you know what? I kind of like it that way! I think the author Flannery O’Connor said it best: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” Being a person of faith means being in the world, engaged and loving and participating. But it does not necessarily mean being of the world, taking the world’s values as our own.
In other words, tonight we come to Bethlehem to worship the Christ child, Emmanuel, God with us. But if we set up shop in Bethlehem, we’re missing the point. We have to go back to our lives, our jobs, our relationships, our stresses and challenges. But we return different, forever changed by a holy encounter.
We re-enter our world marching to the beat of a different little drummer boy. We should be just a little bit out of sync, because we live in a world that has its own values. It’s not about being hostile or paranoid or angry or suspicious; quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that keeping up with the Joneses really should have no hold on us anymore. Instead, we love more fully, more selflessly, more generously than we have ever loved before, because here in the crowded stable, we are loved more fully, more selflessly, more generously than we have ever been loved before.
The poet Christina Rossetti penned these words in 1885, which expresses all of this far better than I ever could:
Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine, Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead, Love Incarnate, Love Divine, Worship we our Jesus, But what is our sacred sign?
Love shall be our token, Love shall be yours and love be mine, Love to God and men and women, Love for plea and gift and sign.
May love be our watchword this night, and, indeed, all throughout the year.