The way in which the church prepares for Christmas compared to the way the rest of the world prepares for Christmas is confusing to many — even those in the church. For example: the “mood”of Advent is “penitential” and more sombre, and we don’t sing Christmas carols, which baffles people.
These reactions to Advent aren’t surprising, since we bring our “secular” experience into church with us. If everyone else is singing Christmas carols, why can’t we do it in church? We are the ones who gave the world the Christmas holiday. But, the result of such expectations is that we can come to see Advent as “so many spiritual shopping days before Christmas,” rather than seeing Advent as a time to prepare ourselves for a face-to-face encounter with the God of time and eternity.
The words of a Christmas song go something like this: “Oh, the real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love everyday.” That sounds nice, but it is not the real meaning of Christmas! In the church we prepare for Christmas in a different way. For the church, Christmas is a holy day, not a holiday. There is a profound difference between the two!
Christmas is a holy day because God became one of us! Christmas is a holy day because God began a journey toward a cross and an empty tomb to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves! Christmas is a holy day because the invisible God of the universe became visible! If Christmas is merely a “holiday,” then it is easy to see Advent as a time to get into the holiday spirit. However, since Christmas is a holy day, Advent is a time for us to prepare for an encounter with the Holy One.
You may be more interested in singing Christmas carols, or buying Christmas gifts, or baking Christmas cookies, and getting into the Christmas spirit than encountering the Holy One. However, the day will come for every one of us when we will meet the Holy One, and if your life today is in any kind of disarray, an encounter with the Holy One will make a big difference.
Meeting the Holy One face to face is so far beyond any experience that we cannot even begin to grasp it. It can even be frightening, for in the presence of God, we look shabby by comparison. Yet, that is what Christmas is about. God came to wrap us in the mantle of God’s holiness so that our lives can take on a new look, a new luster, a new value, a new direction, a new hope.
How can we prepare for an encounter with the Holy One? Look at John the Baptist. His appearance is not exactly in keeping with Christmas. A camel hair outfit is certainly not as festive as a Santa suit. Nor does his message ring with the “holiday spirit.” However, he does address the matter of preparing to meet the Holy One, for that is what his message of repentance is all about.
Repentance! What does it mean? The Greek word for “repent” means “to change.” But somehow, along the way we picked up the wrong idea of repentance. Our understanding of repentance is often associated with “hell fire and brimstone” and is characterized by cartoons with a long-bearded man and his sign announcing the end of the world and calling people to repent, lest they be damned eternally. That’s heavy stuff, wrong stuff. Repentance simply means to change —to turn around and walk in a new direction. In short, to“reverse direction.”
Since Christmas is all about tradition, it’s not easy to understand Advent as preparing to make changes. But if Christmas is really about an encounter with the Holy One, then Christmas must also be about change — changes in our values and priorities, changes in our attitudes, changes in the way we treat others.
So, what changes are we supposed to make to prepare ourselves? What are we currently doing in our lives that keeps us from being sensitive to God’s presence in our life and the lives of the people around us? What are we doing that keeps us at arm’s length from God and from someone else?
It can be working too hard, too much greed, a negative attitude and outlook, inner hostility and resentment, a chip on our shoulder or a hatred that we won’t let go of, or even too much religion in the form of false piety and arrogant self-righteousness.
The specifics of what God calls each of us to change is different. But they do have something in common: we are called to drop the barriers that we erect in our lives which prevent us from being open and sensitive to the spirit of God! As long as we have erected barriers in our lives against other people, the net result will be a barrier against God!
If you’re looking for the holiday spirit, you won’t find it here. But if you are looking for an encounter with the Holy One — if you are looking for the presence of the living God who sent his Son to change the hearts and lives of people — then you’ve come to the right place! To paraphrase the message of John the Baptist, “Reverse direction, for the kingdom of God has arrived!”