The seasons of Advent and Christmas are my favorite times of year when I let them be.
I’m pretty much a grump by nature, so the joy of the holiday season doesn’t come naturally to me. My mood beginning in late October and early November is one of fussiness, because it is then that I start hearing Christmas music played out of season, and I really can’t stand Holiday Creep. So my first association each year with Christmas is akin to an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn.
That being the case, I have to intentionally focus on the right kinds of things to improve my demeanor, and I often have to do that when I don’t feel like it and don’t really want to. Some years I admittedly do a better job of that than others. The reason I choose to do it is because I know it’s better for both my emotional health and for those I love – a cheery David is an improvement on Grinch David.
Often we find that doing the things that don’t come naturally to us and that a large part of us doesn’t want to do are, regardless, the best things. And that makes sense if the Christian understanding of reality is true: that each of us was made as a beautiful creature by a loving God, but the presence of sin tends to distort who we are, what we want, and the world around us.
It can take extra effort and gumption on our part to choose the better things, especially since we live in a culture that often encourages us to take the easy way and follow whatever feelings we are currently experiencing, instead of choosing to cultivate what feelings we know we should have and are healthier.
Because as a great Jedi Master once truthfully said, “Your focus determines your reality” (pours one out for my homie, Qui-Gon Jinn). The thoughts you choose to dwell on shape who you are, what you believe, and what you do. To complete my “Star Wars” nerd moment, Qui-Gon’s above statement to Anakin Skywalker in “The Phantom Menace” was a foreshadowing of Anakin’s choice in “Revenge of the Sith” to focus on and empower his fear of losing his wife over every other thought and belief that resulted in an otherwise good man choosing to make a pact with the devil that would lead to his transformation into Darth Vader.
When it comes to Christmas, listening to particular songs and the words they proclaim help to reorient my humbug attitude. While hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” out of season for the millionth time is liable to make me punch the person closest to me, other songs encourage me to reflect on beautiful and profound deep truths. No song resonates more strongly with me than “O Holy Night.”
The melody is hauntingly moving, but the words are equally if not more so awe inspiring. Take its opening verse as an example:
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious mourn
The feelings expressed here are largely alien to me within the context of the song: I can’t recall feeling like I’ve been pining because of my sin for a savior, nor that upon conversion my soul felt its worth, nor that I had a thrill of hope because of Jesus. So what do we focus on to feel the way we’re told we ought to feel in songs like “O Holy Night”?
We start outside of ourselves. We focus on how the world as a whole is obviously broken – there is disease, war, famine, injustice, abuse of power, discrimination, prejudice, hatred, misunderstanding wherever we turn. From there we begin to realize that what makes the world broken is, mostly, people, and that there is nothing inherently different between the people that make it broken and myself – we all have the same nature inside us whether we’re able to see it clearly or not. We all wrestle with the same temptations, the same choices, the same experiences. Some of us just choose to focus on the wrong things: greed, selfishness, envy, fear, lust, anger, resentment, bitterness, revenge. What results when we do this is brokenness.
We can get lost in the negativity of our world, and when we realize that we are complicit in it being the way it is, we can get lost in the negativity of ourselves. We know the thoughts and feelings we struggle with, and we know the mistakes we’ve made that have spread darkness instead of light. It’s in meditating on these things that we begin to feel the weight of our sinfulness, the weight of our contribution to the broken system we live in.
But in feeling this burden, it is then that I understand the feelings expressed in “O Holy Night.” Advent and Christmas are our yearly resets – they remind us of hope, of joy, and of who we really are. They remind us that God is a God who condescends to meet us and who loves us lavishly, providing the road to transformation to become who we were meant to be. They remind us of where our true focus ought to be in life, the focus that we are so prone to lose sight of and are so easily distracted from: on God and on God’s intention for our lives.
God became human to a poor, marginalized, refugee Middle Eastern family in order to save us from ourselves, to show us how we’re supposed to be human. Advent and Christmas are the beginning of the Christian liturgical year that traces the life of Christ as our Exemplar and climaxes with Easter and Pentecost. And as Christmas is the celebration of God invading our history as a human by being born as an utterly helpless baby – the all-powerful Creator of the universe choosing to become dependent on those that were created – so it is a celebration also for us, because the birth of Christ marks the birth of God’s plan for our redemption and sanctification into eventual eternal relationship, communion, and incorporation within the Life of the Triune God: because God’s plan for us is nothing less than sharing God’s life.
It’s the beginning of this new life in Christ we celebrate along with the birth of Christ himself each Christmas. We need the annual reminder to refocus on what is truly important in life. We regularly need to experience a thrill of hope and rejoice with the weary world that a new and glorious morn broke in a shabby and forgotten manger over 2,000 years ago.