In our busyness leading up to December 25, the date set aside to remember when God entered time and space to dwell or “tabernacle” with humanity, have we missed the beauty of anticipating Christmas and what it means?
In this excerpt from A Light Has Dawned: Meditations on Advent and Christmas, a newly released book from Lexham Press that features the best Advent and Christmas articles from half a century of Christianity Today, author Stanley Grenz ponders this question.
“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me.” Tony Bennett’s voice wove its subtle magic throughout the shopping mall. “How appropriate,” I thought, as I watched the shoppers scurry from store to store. The advertisements promised “just the right gifts at just the right price,” allowing us to “give like Santa and save like Scrooge.”
As I listened, I was struck with how we have turned Christmas around—not so much by commercializing the season, but through something deeper. Our McWorld of drive-through expectations has replaced patient waiting, followed by heartfelt joyous celebration, with the idolatry of instant gratification. This is poignantly evident in the fusillade of renditions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to which we are subjected this time of year.
The ancient Western church devised a rhythmic cycle for the celebration of Christ’s incarnation. At the center was Advent, the 20-plus days beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. By fasting and abstaining from public festivities, Christians were to prepare for the holy day by being drawn into the sense of longing for Messiah’s coming felt by generations of God’s faithful people.
This heightened sense of anticipation would, in turn, give way to overwhelming joy and festive celebration when Christmas Day finally came. Only then followed the 12 days of Christmas, climaxing on January 6 with Epiphany, the commemoration of the visit of the Magi.
As members of the fast-food generation, we have become so eager to get to Christmas that we bypass Advent. Whereas our forebears enjoined fasting and reflection, we try to enjoy days filled with more Christmas festivities than we can endure. Christmas has displaced Advent on our calendars.
But our bypassing of Advent runs deeper—altering our attitude to the story of Christ’s birth. We know how the story ends. Knowing the end of the story so well, we want to rush through the long and tortuous details of how God prepared a people—of how “God sent his Son . . . when the time had fully come” (Gal 4:4 NIV). Rather than entering into the sense of expectation lying at the foundation of the narrative of Christ’s entrance into the human plotline, we read only the story’s glorious climax. Rather than savoring the plaintive mood of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we immediately want to hear a robust version of “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come.”
In short, we have our Christmas early and create a drive-through Christmas.
The irony of our situation is that in our rush toward Christmas, we end up truncating the celebration. Once December 25 is passed, so is the holiday. Stretching the 12 days of Christmas until January 6 seems entirely out of place. In fact, we have eliminated the need to do so by moving the adoration of the Magi to our early Christmas: we efficiently (and ahistorically) place the wise men at the manger next to the shepherds. We cannot even stretch Christmas to December 26, for Boxing Day entices us to take our unwanted, reboxed gifts back to the stores or to buy boxes of the sale goods that draw us out in droves for one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
So we have our 12-plus days of Christmas, just like the song says. But in our impatience born from the lure of instant gratification, we have transposed them. Christmas now precedes December 25. This may allow us to avoid the stressful waiting, the longing expectation, and the forlorn cry of our forebears. But it also precludes us from sharing the exuberant joy of that first Christmas, for we cannot truly sing “Joy to the World” unless we have thoroughly rehearsed “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”