Ask any member of my original family and they will tell you: I was the can’t-freaking-wait-until-Christmas kid.
I was all Christmas cheer, zero Grinch. I am not kidding. In my 20s visiting home for Christmas, I would still wake every single person up on December 25th by 6:00 a.m. including my own toddlers.
Growing up, my dad would make us wait for gifts until he read the Bethlehem story from the Bible, and listen, I love Baby Jesus, I do, but no man has ever read slower in the history of literacy than Larry King slogging his way through Luke 2 at 6:13 a.m. on Christmas morn. Make it stop, Holy Spirit.
When I was in sixth grade, I literally could not take the anticipation, and one night in mid-December under the cover of darkness, I carefully opened every single present of mine while my parents slept peacefully in their bed, assuming their square firstborn would never break rules (surprise, Larry and Jana! Your own personal Buddy the Elf committed a Christmas crime). I split the tape on one end with a steak knife, slid each box out of the wrapping with the precision of a surgeon, opened the present without messing up the interior tissue paper, and slid it back and re-taped it. Every. Single. Present.
Unfortunately, it utterly ruined Christmas 1985 because I had nothing to look forward to and had to fake surprise. (I tell my kids this story every year as a cautionary tale, which never stopped them from snooping once. If they want to ruin their own Christmas, it wasn’t because I didn’t warn them of my errant lawlessness.)
That year, I learned that anticipation is part of what makes the day beautiful.
I didn’t grow up knowing what Advent meant. I’m not even sure I heard that word until I was an adult. Do not get me wrong: my family was all in on Christmas. In our Baptist church world, we had the Christmas cantata, the handbell choir, the children’s program, the Living Christmas Tree, the Bethlehem drama, O Holy Night by the uncontested soprano soloist, the one who always got the big songs (tip of the hat to Erin Wright!). So we handed all of December programming to Baby Jesus for sure, but it was only later I learned the word “Advent.”
Between definition and synonyms, Advent basically means: anticipating, coming, a new beginning, expecting, preparing, hoping, waiting. In different forms, it is like a child counting down the days until her birthday, the senior wild with readiness for graduation, the bride attending to final details the month before her wedding, the woman measuring life in weeks in her third trimester. Something big and important and wonderful is coming. There are preparations to be made, room to be cleared, hearts to be readied, because this big, important, wonderful thing will be the start of something new, something immensely desired, tremendously awaited for. It is the fulfillment of a great hope.
With crazy anticipation, the special thing is finally coming.
Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (December 3rd this year in 2023) and ends on Christmas Eve. The church in Europe began celebrating four weeks of Advent somewhere in the fifth century, and mainline churches in the west use it as the beginning of the liturgical calendar. There are tons of practices and rituals associated with Advent that vary across traditions, denominations, and regions. Without a singular narrative, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned and why Advent means something special to me.
As clearly demonstrated, anticipation is a very familiar emotion to me. How precious something impending feels dictates the level of excitement leading up to it. No one has to teach us how expectancy feels in our bodies: the giddiness, the hope, the can’t-freaking-waitness of it all. Which, in its origin story, takes us back to Israel all those years ago. Every generation was waiting for Jesus. His birth had been foretold by every family to each young set of ears. Jesus was coming, and he would be special. His arrival meant freedom; not that ancient hearers understood what kind of freedom He would bring, but the anticipation was all the same.
I have always felt impossibly tender about Jesus’ birth story. I just can’t take it. The young unwed mother, the simple family, the baby born in a stable, the announcement only to shepherds, the outrageous ordinary placement of a king. This is how He came. What could ever be more precious than this? Like my friend Amy told me years ago: “I can’t believe that is how he did it.”
I’ll be honest, if Jesus was born in the palace and his freedom enacted through positional power, that wouldn’t qualify as good news to me at all. The closer most leaders get to power, the further from the margins they become. Power protects power, power begets power, and power reinforces power. It is hierarchical in nature, vulnerable to corruption, self-protective at best and others-destructive at worst. Governmental power has been the source of suffering and misery for millennia. It is predictable and disappointing, and the greatest news about Jesus’ birth is that it happened in a barn.
My all-time favorite sermon on Jesus’ birth story was by Charles Spurgeon* in 1862:
“By being in a manger he was declared to be the king of the poor…it is not a Caesar that is born today; he will never trample down our fields with his armies, or slaughter our flocks for his courtiers, he will be the poor man’s friend, the people’s monarch…In thus being laid in a manger, he did, as it were, give an invitation to the most humble to come to him. We might tremble to approach a throne, but we cannot fear to approach a manger.
Never could there be a being more approachable than Christ. No rough guards pushed poor petitioners away; no array of officious friends were allowed to keep off the importunate widow or the man who clamored that his son might be made whole. The hem of his garment was always trailing where sick folk could reach it, and he himself had a hand always ready to touch the disease, an ear to catch the faintest accents of misery, a soul going forth everywhere in rays of mercy.”
A soul going forth everywhere in rays of mercy.
This was who Jesus was and this is how He came, and this is why we look forward to the beginning of the story every year. Advent turns our eyes to the most subversive plot twist ever conceived. It is never not magnificent. It never gets old. It never leaves out the humble or excludes the poor. It never shifts into something shinier or fancier, no matter how many watching eyes are on it during this time of year. This story has no nefarious agenda once it reaches a popularity quota. It remains stubbornly anti-establishment and unwaveringly pro-justice. Jesus was, as foretold, good news for the poor, which as it turns out, is all of us.
The way He came is everything. There was no other way for the story to begin. Everything about Jesus was authentic and true. He didn’t bookend his life with auspicious privileges; he was born in a manger and died on a cross. Jesus was altogether good, exactly who he claimed to be, proved to be, and is to this day.
Advent remembers the beginning and helps us thrill yet again that this is how He did it. We gently close our eyes to the chaos and frenzy this month has become, and we let our minds wander back to that dark night in Bethlehem, the laboring young mother, the straw under her back, the baby’s arrival to us; Jesus, Lord at thy birth. We approach the manger because all are welcome there.
With adoration, we welcome hope as it enters the story. He came for us.
Through the month of December 2023, I’ll be gathering my community to walk through this Advent season. Stay tuned for those live sessions on Facebook and Instagram.
SESSION 1: Monday, December 4 @ 8:30 p.m. CT
SESSION 2: Sunday, December 10 @ 8:30 p.m. CT
SESSION 3: Sunday, December 17
SESSION 4: Thursday, December 21