Tag Archives: Christmas

Advent Time

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I love the season of Advent for a lot of reasons, not least the way it embraces the messiness of existence in a manner appropriate to the chaos of the month in which it falls.

But today I’ve been thinking about the way that Advent forces us to reflect on time in a unique way, in both looking back and looking forward, remembrance and imagination of times past and times to come.  The fact that today is my birthday aids in my reflection. Birthdays are steps out of time in a weird way, “just another day” but also not. They are 24 hours long just like any day, but they hold a disproportionate place in our memories and our hopes. They are kairos moments (as opposed to chronos)and as such they remind us that time is less mundane and more miraculous than we often give it credit.

Movies capture this as well. An excellent recent essay on Interstellar illustrates how the film becomes a sort of meta reflection on the way movies reflect the realities of time back to us:

A movie is, itself, an act of relativistic time compression. All movies are a capture of moments of time reconstructed into a semblance of persistence… The universe’s rules are given dramatic life after [Interstellar’s] tragic first expedition to the water planet. Upon return the astronauts learn that 23 years have passed in just over an hour. When Cooper watches a series of messages taking him through two decades of his children’s lives, it is the maximal example of the universal act of anyone watching recorded footage of a loved one. Because all recorded media is a capture of a moment of the past, and to view it is to observe that the true constant in the universe is not the speed of light but our passage through time. Time may distort, your reference perception of it may shift, but we only ever move forward through it. Interstellar compresses the brutal truth of this absolute into a purely expressionistic tragedy, the movie itself distorting time in order to let us feel the full weight of its tragedy, the way our lives slip through our hands, our loved ones age, our children proceed into the future, into a few minutes.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, one of 2014’s best films, also captures this “lives slipping through our hands well.” Time is a frequent subject of Linklater’s (see the Before trilogy), but Boyhood is the director’s most forceful embrace of cinema’s ability to confront the viewer with the reality of time. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time:

“As he buys his ticket, it’s as if the cinema-goer were seeking to make up for the gaps in his own experience, throwing himself into a search for ‘lost time.’ In other words he seeks to fill that spiritual vacuum which has formed as a result of the specific conditions of his modern existence: constant activity, curtailment of human contact, and the materialist bent of modern education.”

Advent does the same thing; it meets us where we are but helps us transcend time. On one hand it zooms us back to history’s most kairotic moment ever: the incarnation of God in flesh, the Creator involving himself in the physical story of creation, in the fulness of time. But Advent also zooms us forward to the “not yet” consummation of history, the coming again of Christ judge and rule and restore this broken world. All of it is held together in the mystery of the incarnation.

In our house this week we’ve been listening a lot to “Nine Lessons & Carols” by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. It’s beautiful Christmas music. As I listen to it I feel the back-and-forward, now-and-not-yet tension of Advent. The live recording makes me imagine what it must have been like to be there, in the glorious King’s College Chapel, listening to the choral voices and organ in person. It reminds me of times I’ve been in that sacred space myself, worshipping with dear friends who I may not see again in my lifetime. The music stirs longing in my heart for eschatological resolution–for the day when the absence of friends, family members, and the agony of time’s relentless forward motion will give way to a cathartic presence and rest.

The relentlessness of time can be unbearable, but Advent helps us bear it. It allows us to slow down, pause, and enter into time in a new way. Devotionals like the Biola Advent Project help us in this. I pray that God grants you a profound, out-of-time encounter with his presence this Advent.

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Christmas Eve Prayer Requests

Oh Jesus-
You who took on flesh-
Becoming one of us,
Knowing our aches and pains,
Feeling our pangs and longings,
Suffering and lamenting like we do.
You didn’t have to do that.
But you did.
In our dark night you are the light that dawns.
In our sin and shame you are the arms open wide.
Guilty and damned we were,
Hopeless and driftless and weary,
Until you came.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Oh Immanuel-
You who are with us-
Help us to feel your presence,
Even as the darkness oppresses:
Plaguing our bodies with cancer,
Riddling our children with bullets,
Flooding our homes with seawater,
Filling our minds with despair.
Kindle the fire within us
that longs to burn for you.
When we feel you are most distant,
Let our pining affirm you are there.

Oh Prince of Peace-
You who rule over all-
Return in the flesh again soon.
Rebuild this broken city.
Repair the breach of Eden.
Restore the blossoms in our Paradise lost.
Come right all wrongs, oh King.
In furious, fiery fanfare,
Let the world see the fullness of justice for the first time.
And perfect peace.
The end of hospitals.
Unpolluted air.
Rivers of life that never run dry.

Oh giver of all-
You who shower us with grace-
Help us to receive your love
And come when you call.
Help us to never stop singing the praises of your name.
In our paintings, stories, business pursuits,
May we reflect your glory and contribute to the epic.
Telling of the tabernacle, the manger, the cross.
Spreading your light as you lead us,
Making inroads in the dark.

On Aging and Advent

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we could remember as far back as the moment of our birth–that slimy, turbulent transition from the comfort of a warm, dark womb into the unkind cold, harsh bright light of life outside. What emotions, thoughts, hopes, and fears would accompany such a memory? As it is, I can only remember about 27 of my 30 years… my memories begin around age three.

When Jesus turned 30, could he recall the moment of his own birth? That epic, heavenly-hosts-rejoicing mystery in which God incarnate dwelled within a teenage girl’s womb one minute, and cried and breathed in Bethlehem air the next? Was his memory God-like and infinite, or was it as limited as mine, recalling only shadows and bursts of nascent consciousness from his earliest years?

I like to think it was the latter.

Here on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent, and two days before my 30th birthday, I’ve been thinking a bit about aging. Turning 30 feels to me to be the first birthday where I’ve really contemplated the reality of mortality–that my body is gradually breaking and my breath will one day fail me.

Time and aging are weird, earthy, fleshly things. But it’s what we know. All we know. How does it, then, feel so peculiar and unnatural? Why is it that, when I pause to venture into my own distant past–waiting for the school bus, building campfires with my dad, playing in the creek and the riverbank with my friends–my heart feels so weighty with longing? How can instants gone by, archived pictures in my mind, stir up such discontent?

I think Lewis captures it well in Reflections on the Psalms when he writes:

We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

The eternal enveloped in time, embodied in humanity, Christ must have felt this bafflement with temporality even more than I do. If it feels to me that I’m a fish out of water, I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to Christ.

Or perhaps it felt just the same.

I stand in awe of the Incarnation for precisely this reason: that in Jesus Christ, the Divine became a man just like me, a breakable body with tender emotions, longings,  vulnerabilities, maladies. In “the fullness of time” (I love the mystery of this phrase), the hopes and fears of all the years were met in a man called Emmanuel. God was with us. Walking the same mountains. Breathing the same air. A part of the same decaying system of life, death and earthiness.

As I consider my own life–the 30 years already lived and whatever I may live from here–I take solace in the fact that Jesus Christ was here too. He turned 30 once. Maybe he also reflected on his first three decades of life with a mix of gratefulness and curiously somber nostalgia. I wonder if he knew where he was going at that point… where his 30s would lead him. Or maybe he felt as open-ended and uncertain as I do now, confident only that he would seek his Father’s will.

All I know is that the Incarnation gives me hope. Christ is familiar with the struggles I face and the wonders I behold. He knows that feeling of joy mixed with sorrow when one looks back on the past: that purple sunrise in the desert, that night of endless storytelling around a campfire, those special breakfasts Grandma used to make. He understands the disconcerting realization that one’s capacity for dreaming and accumulating “to-dos” is far bigger than the breadth of accomplishments one’s fleeting life can accommodate.

Ours is a life of chronic dissatisfaction and unrelenting pace. We are all speeding forward in time and age, leaving in our wake the things we did and didn’t do, plunging ahead with only a vague sense of purpose and perspective. It would be enough to drive anyone crazy.

And yet the Incarnation.

God redeemed creation. Christ took on temporality to make possible for us a timeless future. In the fullness of time. A new world of peace. A weary world that will soon see rest.

Rejoice.

The Darkest Night of the Year

One of my favorite Christmas traditions has always been the Christmas Eve candlelight service. As a child I probably liked it most for the getting-to-light-a-candle aspect (who doesn’t like playing with fire and wax?), though even then I felt the mystical power of seeing one light pierce the darkness and gradually begin to spread throughout the congregation, illuminating and warming the church sanctuary. It was a marvel to behold, especially when—as “Silent Night” or “Oh Holy Night” echoed throughout the candlelit room—I began to fathom the symbolic significance of the whole activity. It was the image of a world-changing light that spread everywhere from one humble little plastic-cup-encased white wax candle. The Incarnation.

This baby—born into strife, squalor, in a nondescript cave—was more than a feared little rebel threat and chink in the armor of the Roman machine. In time this humble little child set in motion a movement that surpassed Rome and all other empires in size, scope, and revolutionary impact. From Bethlehem the light spread through the dark sanctuary of the world, from the Middle East to Europe to the ends of the earth. Within two hundred years Christ’s world-changing life and gospel was being propagated and theologized by major figures in North Africa (Tertullian), Greece (Clement), Turkey (Polycarp), and Rome (Justin Martyr). Against strident opposition and persecution the light spread quickly and caught fire in some places (Europe), ultimately becoming the dominant cultural influence from that point onwards. 2009 years later, now in places like China and Sub-Saharan Africa, the light is shining brighter by the day.

The Christmas Eve candlelight services are more than just a nice symbolic act of remembrance, however. They are the continuation of a biblical tradition of likening Christ to images of light and darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” wrote the prophet Isaiah (9:2). “On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” This was hundreds of years before Mary, Joseph or Jesus were even born, but it was an idea Jesus himself carried on as an adult. “While I am in the world,” he said, “I am the light of the world” (Matthew 9:5).

Tonight is the darkest night of the year. December 21: Winter solstice. It’s the shortest night of the year and the day when the earth is tilted the furthest away from the sun. It’s the day when light is the most elusive.

How fitting that in such a dark week, we celebrate the entry of light into the world. When the world was at it’s darkest—on that silent, cold night 2,000 years ago—cosmic light and eternal hope took human form as a baby (a baby!) born into the humblest of conditions for the sake of a dark, desperate world.

I love the 19th century Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” especially these lines:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Imagine! The hopes and fears of all the years—it all comes to a head at this one point, this turning point in the history of the universe. And of all things, it’s a baby! In him—in this everlasting light shining dimly from a manger—are met the collected pains, fears, tragedies, triumphs, hopes, cries, prayers, bellyaching and sufferings of everyone who has ever lived. Just think about the sheer volume of that!

All of it—all of the baggage we carry, all the things we fight against, the wars and hunger, losses and loves—it all looks toward this one singular point. This light. Like the Bethlehem star that alerted the wise men to the coming of Christ, it’s a light that shines high and bright, for all the world to see.

The spreading of that light, as symbolized in the Christmas Eve candlelight services, comes about through the church, which has been Christ’s “body” on earth ever since the resurrection. The light spreads (has never stopped spreading) through Christians who are willing to live up to the calling of Christ on the Sermon on the Mount:

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

It’s inspiring to think about being a carrier of this light—to recognize that I was once in darkness, but am now in the light of the Lord and must live as a child of this light (Ephesians 5:8).

On this Christmas Eve, as I light my candle and pass it on to my neighbor at church—as I’ve done year after year, for as long as I can remember—I will think about what it means to be a son of light. I’ll think of it when I’m holding my baby niece by the Christmas tree, pointing out the twinkling lights and angel ornaments. I’ll think about it if it snows (please Kansas, give me some snow!), waking up to that particularly bright color of light reflected on the purest of icy white.

Or I’ll think about it by looking up at the cold night and focusing on a star, thinking about how Jesus probably saw the same star too. Jesus who walked on the same planet that I do. Jesus who was God incarnate. God who made the stars and said “Let there be light” in the first place.

I Understand Very Little (Some Advent Thoughts)

Yesterday I read this Newsweek article that attempts to debunk the apparently misguided biblical argument against gay marriage. I will say nothing more about it, except that the article hammered home one major point: Christianity and the Bible are frightfully misunderstood.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been researching an article that I am writing on the “missional” movement in Christianity. I’ve been interviewing dozens of professors, theologians, pastors, and church historians in efforts to understand what “missional” is saying about the purpose of the Christian church in the world. I will say nothing more about it, except that it reminded me of one thing: even Christians have trouble agreeing upon what Christianity really means.

These two instances, in combination with scores of other things (including but not limited to the plane crash that killed four people in San Diego, Oprah getting fat, and Handel’s Messiah), have reinforced to me the deep and abiding mystery that is Christianity. I mean, the word and the religion are not all that mysterious, but how it all works—the birth of Jesus, the death, the resurrection, and all the fancy words we use to make sense of it all (incarnation, justification, salvation, atonement)—is utterly and unavailingly mystifying.

But really, could it be any other way? We’re talking about God here, the eternal, omni-everything Being of beings, the Ultimate Concern (as Tillich would say) who created all things… and he condescended to our little planet in the form of an infant? And as this human, the person that history recorded as Jesus Christ, God made himself fathomable. This is how I look at Jesus: as the form through which God revealed the knowable part of himself to his creation.

It makes sense that Jesus was the complicated, counterintuitive, controversial figure that he was. He was God in a man’s body—fully human and fully God. No wonder we’re still talking about, wrestling with, trying to make sense of this guy. No wonder people still argue about what he meant by this or that, or “what he would do” in this or that scenario. No wonder we pray to him and sing songs about him, and go crazy every December in commemorate his birth.

God (aka Yahweh) was pretty complicated and mysterious before Jesus happened (i.e. in the Old Testament), but his mystery increased exponentially when he became a human. I mean, who does that??? I’ve read the Bible many times, I’ve heard Paul and the others when they talk about why God sent Jesus to earth and to the cross. And I still can’t fully understand what is going on. I mean, I understand enough. I understand that it was all out of love, for me, for a divine purpose, and that it was God moving to rescue his creation from self-destruction and sin. I understand the creeds, the theology, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But so much of it is still totally over my head.

And that is why Advent and Christmas are so wonderful. They are blatantly, audaciously inexplicable. They embrace mystery. They are about the mystery of God and Jesus. It’s comforting to know that all these thousands of years later, with centuries of intellect and science and progress and theology, we are just as awed and brought to our knees by the mystery as we ever were. The phenomenon is just clear enough that it has survived millennia and will survive forever onward, and mysterious enough to be worthy of worship.

And so we’ll press on, continuing in faith to be the church that God founded through Christ for the world. We don’t have to understand it all to be useful or meaningful. God is using his people in ways they scarcely can imagine. Our cognizant compliance is irrelevant.

But thanks be to God that we can understand some things. In the Christmas star, the cold winds, the nostalgic reverie of tinseled trees and warm rum and spiced cakes.

We can understand some things.

Advent: A Beautiful and Sad Time of Year

Though Thanksgiving is not a part of the liturgical season of Advent, I think it fits perfectly as segue or entry point into this period of the church calendar.

Advent, after all, is about anticipating and reflecting upon the mystery that is the Incarnation: the nearly incomprehensible moment when God entered human history by becoming a baby on earth. Thanksgiving is an appropriate predecessor, as a day that we set aside to take stock of what we have, what God has done for us, the bounties and blessings and loves he’s bestowed us. Thanksgiving gets us in the mode of self-effacing gratitude, but it doesn’t end there. It prepares our hearts and minds for the bigger, more solemn, more awesome experience of meditating upon God’s greatest and most mind-blowing gift ever: himself.

It puts everything into perspective. On Thanksgiving, I was amazed and shamed at all the things I have. I was thankful for all the usual stuff (family, friends, a house, my health) as well as some unusual stuff (walnuts, synthesizers, Japanese people, aging), but mostly I was just overwhelmed by the fact that I was even alive: that I existed when I just as well might not have existed, and that God orchestrated it for some spectacularly unfathomable reason.

It made me reflect on the preciousness of life, and how newborn babies often make us say things like “isn’t life a miracle” or some variation of “that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Which is weird, because babies are really not all that beautiful, in the way we typically conceive of beauty. They are actually a bit deformed and unseemly, what with their frog-like appendages flailing around and their crinkly, crying faces, etc. But we nevertheless are floored by the miracle and beauty of them. And I think it is our response to the very idea of life: of an existence that starts at a defined point, a someone that holds the promise of the world and an unknowing affirmation of everything in its gradually opening eyes. Above all, it’s a sense of wonder. How and where does this little person come into being? Why do we love it and it us? What is its purpose? It’s the supreme mystery of existence.

It’s fitting, then, that God chose to enter our human world as a newborn baby. He could have appeared out of thin air as a 21 year old, or as a 30-year-old prophet ready for some serious ministry. But he chose to start where everyone else starts: in the womb. His incarnation was always about working through—not outside of—creation to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. And a baby who is born and grows up and dies is something we can understand. It was God coming down to our level to bless our unfortunate little existence by becoming part of it. And his name was Emmanuel—“God With Us.”

Speaking of that, I highly recommend the advent devotional book, God With Us, featuring essays and meditations by the likes of Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris, and Luci Shaw. In the introduction to the book, which I read last night (Day 1 of Advent), Eugene Peterson captures so much of what I have been feeling about Advent. He writes:

There can’t be very many of us for whom the sheer fact of existence hasn’t rocked us back on our heels. We take off our sandals before the burning bush. We catch our breath at the sight of a plummeting hawk. “Thank you, God.” We find ourselves in a lavish existence in which we feel a deep sense of kinship—we belong here; we say thanks with our lives to Life. And not just “Thanks” or “Thank It,” but “Thank You.” Most of the people who have lived on this planet Earth have identified this You with God or gods. This is not just a matter of learning our manners, the way children are taught to say thank you as a social grace. It is the cultivation of adequateness within ourselves to the nature of reality, developing the capacity to sustain an adequate response to the overwhelming gift and goodness of life.

Wonder is the only adequate launching pad for exploring this fullness, this wholeness, of human life. Once a year, each Christmas, for a few days at least, we and millions of our neighbors turn aside from our preoccupations with life reduced to biology or economics or psychology and join together in a community of wonder. The wonder keeps us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.

I love that Advent simultaneously forces us away from ourselves and our petty problems while also, in a way, affirming them. It’s a season of denying our self and our possibility in the face of the wholly Other that is the mysterious, Incarnate Emmanuel. But it’s also a chance for us to focus, to synthesize our various desires, issues, concerns, and identities into a cohesive oneness with the bewildering fact that we are here, and so is God. There’s a reason why we sing “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” We share a planet—the dirt, air, water, DNA—with the creator of the universe. This is the most empowering and humbling fact of history, and the weight of it is immense. It is the reason Advent is historically a very solemn season: because the Incarnation cannot be taken lightly.

As I enter into Advent this year, I’m burdened by just as many hopes and fears as the next guy. There is pain and regret in my heart, love and confusion, physical and emotional imperfection, and immense exhaustion. I sometimes just want to drink eggnog or mulled wine and listen to Over the Rhine’s Darkest Night of the Year (for the record, probably the best Christmas album of all time) while languishing in self-pity and world weariness as stocks and bombs carry the torch of history’s tumultuous march.

And Advent accepts all that. It thrives on unsettledness, uncertainty, and despair. Which is kind of bleak for a holiday season that is typically thought of as the merriest season of all. Until we recognize that our pain makes Advent all the more meaningful—to look forward, expectantly, longingly, to the moment when all the pieces (of our lives, of history, of heaven and earth) come together in a monstrous cymbal crash that reverberates in every corner and cranny of the concert hall.