The days leading up to Christmas, when I was a child, were filled with anticipation, with hour stacked upon slow-moving hour. The department store sales came first, and then up went decorations, followed by holiday songs on the radio, and presents under our tree. As the signs of Christmas proliferated, I could scarcely contain myself.
But minutes seemed to mercilessly stretch themselves into small eternities, so that I wondered how I would ever make it to Christmas recess without dying at my school desk, nothing left to show I had been there but a puddle of impatient boy, the strain of waiting too great for my small body to bear.
I guess it’s true for many children, and perhaps for many adults as well, that we await the arrival of Christmas with a sense that it brings only joy, and this largely an indulgent happiness—gifts, treats, parties, time off from work or school. Embracing Christianity in adulthood, I learned to pay attention to the Advent season, to the lighting of candles each Sunday, to the Scripture readings about prophecies, and wandering wise men, and shepherds struck dumb as angels lit up the cold night sky.
All of this fostered, to a man for whom Christmas has been shaped by the experiences of childhood, a mindset of joyful anticipation. And well it should, for how favored we must be that God Himself would stoop low to an animal’s den and take on this beleaguered flesh, all out of His great and indescribable love for us. Yet we must ask, amidst the joyful music, the candles and candies and warm season’s wishes: To what end comes this God-man?
There are joy-filled answers, to be sure. He brings to this earth “peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, KJV). He is “an everlasting light” (Isa. 60:19). The birth of Christ means “God and sinners reconciled,” as Charles Wesley declared in a solemn hymn that was brightened considerably by Felix Mendelssohn—whose refashioned tune we sing in churches and choral chambers and front yards every year.
To be reconciled to this God we have so greatly and repeatedly wronged, for Whom we long yet cannot see—this is certainly “good news of great joy which will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
Still the question lingers: To what end comes the King of Glory, this God so tenderly enfleshed?
We know the answer, but many of us are not accustomed to thinking on it this far from Easter. He comes to die. To have His sinless body marred by wicked men, and to forgive them on the cross He will bear. To offer up His life under a darkened sky, and to descend into shadowed death, where so many before Him, laid low by the curse brought into this world through the first man, await liberation.
To have joy without sorrow, or sorrow without joy, is not to live fully the life to which each of us is called.
We know this, but all too often in my own actions, at least, I don’t live during the Advent season as if this mournful truth is relevant. Perhaps the reason is my proneness to seek pleasure that caused our Puritan forebears to ban Christmas celebration. Food, gifts, fancy clothes, a release from work—all of these play straight into my fleshly weaknesses. I want to sit by a crackling fire and listen to “Silent Night,” and tear up at “Sleep in heavenly peace,” whether it’s because I’m listening to a children’s choir or because this always reminds me that at the end of everything, I just want peace.
In this, I know I’m not alone. And maybe that’s another reason I shrink from the pain of the incarnation—because I want peace, and a baby meek and mild is so much more comforting than a humble King come to upend worldly kingdoms, overturn merchants’ tables, divide households and hearts.
As in so many other parts of my life, I shrink from the reality that the Christian walk is an intermingling of joy and sorrow. We are called to pick up a cross and follow our Savior, and yet to “consider it all joy” (James 1:2) when we are in the midst of trials. We are liberated from sin and death, yet we are mired in the hurts and setbacks and betrayals of a world arrayed against faithful living. To have joy without sorrow, or sorrow without joy, is not to live fully the life to which each of us is called. Yet this is how I often live—fearful of the inevitable suffering, grasping evermore for a spot of happiness, a distraction. Solomon saw this cowardly tendency among the people of his time, and perhaps even in himself: “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, and the end of joy may be grief” (Prov. 14:13).
And so do I approach Christmas as a time for fleeting happiness. Yes, there are the solemn candles in church on the Sundays of Advent. There are hints, in hymns, of Christ’s full purpose, as in the final stanza of “The First Noel,” where we sing, “And with His blood mankind has bought.” There are the many recitations of prophecies fulfilled: “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5).
There are indeed these whisperings of this season’s grave purpose, but I don’t live them out, and neither does our culture.
This muting of the essential nature of Christmas can be spied—foretold, even— in the evolution of one of my most beloved Christmas hymns, “O Holy Night.” The French poet Placide Cappeau wrote it in 1847 with this gripping line: “For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.” Only eight years later, however, the Unitarian preacher John Sullivan Dwight struck this harsh truth from the hymn. Who wants to talk about a baby born to die, when there is celebrating to be undertaken?
But we must, we must.
This is the Christian way, to embrace Christ’s joy and His suffering. Rejoice, with the angels, at His birth. But weep at Herod’s unspeakable slaughter of innocents that followed, these little ones the first to be martyred for Christ.
Give thanks with a creation which groaned so loudly at the Savior’s approach that Jews and Gentiles alike foresaw His coming. But weep at the cost, the great cost of His blood—a prize we all hold so cheaply too many times in our lives.
Thank Him because, as the fourth-century theologian Athanasius wrote so eloquently, “He put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out.” Yet grieve how easily we defile that same body, and thereby the body of the church, and of Christ.
Given how great are His love and mercy, and how easily we presume upon them, and how true He remains in spite of us, how can we do anything but laugh and weep all at once?
The Advent season will always be, for me, a time of great anticipation. Yet it is fitting that, as my faith matures, it also becomes a time of repentance, even fasting, in the days leading up to Christmas. The joy of peace on earth, after all, is great only when we survey the magnitude of the strife that otherwise rends it.
His light shines so brightly because the darkness before has been so deep.
The article was selected from In Touch magazine.