I often think that many, certainly those of us in our highly secularized world, think of the “Christmas season” in very specific terms. It lasts, they might argue, from the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday) until gifts are returned. Perhaps some might keep their holiday trees alight until New Years Day. Still others, those who have a vague notion about the time-line of Christmastide might regard Twelfth Night (whatever that is; party time perhaps?) as the real end of the season.
Alas. We Christians do have some educating to do. Yes, we want to keep Christ in Christmas. But, let's face it; we can't keep Christ OUT of Christmas. Christ IS Christmas. Christ is all about Christmas, just as John the Baptist is all about Advent. We have to learn that, in order to learn about Christmas, we need to learn about Advent. And learning about both seasons teaches a lot about ourselves. They teach us about God, too.
First comes Advent. We are taught that this is a penitential season. It is that certainly. It is a time for fasting and prayer, a time for preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of Emmanuel, God among us. How many times have we heard these words? How many times have we truly taken them to heart?
John Baptist likely believed that God would come in great power and glory, armed to the devine teeth with the weapons necessary to destroy the wicked, the intransigent and the just plain bad. Well, we sometimes think so, too, as we go about in our own judgmental way. We may not say “repent ye” in the ancient language John spoke. Who would understand us anyway? We don't even say “repent ye” in the King's (James the Authorized) English. But we can't help judging others. It is what we too often do. During Advent, we may judge ourselves pretty harshly as well. There is that Calvinist thread within us. That thread causes us to look at ourselves as far less than perfect. We may not think of ourselves as card carrying members of the “pit of vipers” club. But who among us would presume to rate ourselves right up there with the angels?
Advent may frustrate us in any number of ways. But there is that moment on Christmas morning that seems to change all that. There is Christ. There is the tiny child. Impossibly small. Humble in every human way possible. He reaches out his tiny arms to us. He tells us in words made flesh; words of human form made present; words of God made of us and for us.
This moment is not the moment of our destruction. This moment is the moment of our salvation, a moment of our forgiveness, a moment when the reality of divine life is brought present. Rather than a judgment that is forced upon us from without, it is a judgment that is released from within. In that moment, if we have prepared for it throughout Advent, we may come to understand, perhaps for the first time, the great privilege and joy it is to forgive. And we may come to understand just how much we have been forgiven, through the life of that tiny child, little arms extended to embrace us, arms that ultimately surrendered to the cross.
On behalf of the Anglican Church in America, I wish you a blessed and joyous Christmas!
The Most Rev.