It was the first Christmas following our marriage. Peggy and I met in early February, had a whirlwind courtship that lasted about two weeks before we became engaged, and we were married in mid-May. Everyone in her family and mine, as well as our friends and acquaintances, held their collective breath wondering if we would make it. After more than half a century together, I think everyone can exhale; I’m pretty sure we’re going to be OK. And it has been a great deal more than just OK; it has been “a wonderful life,” if I may borrow the title of the beloved Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie.
Still, 1970 was our first Christmas together, and there had been little opportunity to become acquainted with the long-standing holiday traditions of our respective families. Only recently had I become pastor of a church in suburban Birmingham, Alabama. We had hardly moved into the parsonage before it became time to put up our first Christmas tree, shop for presents, and share the Advent season with our new church family.
The weeks of Advent flew by, and suddenly it was Christmas Eve. Arriving home following a candlelight church service, I settled into my favorite chair in the living room while Peggy changed clothes prior to joining me there. I waited, somewhat impatiently, and, when she finally arrived, I asked, “Are you ready?”
“Ready to what?” she questioned.
“Ready to open the presents,” I replied.
“Oh, we can’t open them tonight,” she said with astonishment.
“We have to wait until Christmas morning.”
“My family has always opened presents early on Christmas morning,” she said, a look on her face that suggested I ought to know the obvious.
“Well, my family always opened Christmas presents on Christmas Eve,” I said, imitating her tone and look. And here we were, about to have an argument—not our first one mind you, just our first one on Christmas Eve.
Suffice it to say that we worked through the problem, found a compromise, and began a new tradition of our own that respected the family traditions both of us brought to our marriage. Still, at this season every year, I find myself remembering that evening, smiling at the brief distress our cultural collision caused, and musing on how the experience set the tone for the way we have resolved most of the succeeding crises of life.
During Advent, in churches and private homes around the world, candles are lighted and the stages of the journey to Bethlehem are observed. It is the time when we sing familiar hymns commemorating the birth of the Christ child; attend gatherings of family and friends to celebrate the season; decorate our homes, buy presents, and wait anxiously for the time when we tear open the packages and discover what has been awaiting us under the tree. But the season has a dark side as well. As surely as the threatening figure of Herod the Great lurks in the background of the biblical narratives of the birth of Jesus, waiting for the opportunity to harm the newborn child, there are people and circumstances lurking malevolently in the darkness of each Christmas season. Immediately we think of the predatory personalities who steal credit cards, burglarize homes, bilk unsuspecting senior adults with seasonal scams, and mug shoppers in parking lots.
But other dark realities intrude from the shadowy fringes of the season as well: illness, grief, divorce, accidents, depression, and spiritual emptiness. Recent Advent seasons have been overshadowed by the grim reality of the Covid-19 pandemic that prevented us from engaging in so many of the customary worship, fellowship, and family gatherings we cherished while we mourned the deaths of millions in our own country and worldwide. Further, even after taking all the recommended precautions, we still wondered if this invisible menace would penetrate our efforts to protect ourselves and our loved ones and leave us remembering that our family was included among the thousands who observed Advent in mourning. For millions and millions, the choruses of “Peace on Earth” and “Joy to the World” rang with tinny hollowness as their lives were characterized by strife, despair, grief, and shock.What can we do, in our own lives and in our interactions with others, to keep at bay these lurking dangers while at the same time we embrace the wondrous story of God’s choice to become like us in order that we might become like God? Well, I have no magic formulas, but I do have suggestions to offer. Interestingly enough, they are drawn from how Peggy and I resolved the minor distress over when we should open our presents—on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.
First, one begins with love—deep, abiding, sustaining, transforming love. Some of you are saying, “Here comes the mushy part.” Not from me. It’s the mushy part I wish to challenge, because the “mushy emotionalism” that passes itself off today for authentic Christian love is inadequate to meet the real needs of our lives. The New Testament writers, and the early Christian community, understood that the most common words in the ordinary Greek of their day failed to express the depth and richness of the love they had found in God’s redemptive grace. Words like phileo and eros were too emotionally and hormonally oriented to express what they wanted to say, so they reached into the language for another word, agape, to express their understanding of how God had elected to relate to them in and through Jesus Christ, and for how they should relate to one another as the expression of their Christian identity.
They filled the word agape with content that moved beyond passion-driven instinct and sentiment-laden feeling. They understood that the most fully authentic expression of love in our lives is not that of hormones and feelings but that of choice—the choice to relate to those around us in ways that foster the fullest expressions of goodwill, grace, and godliness. Further, it is the choice to relate to others in these ways regardless of whether they relate to us in the same way. Agape is love given in the hope that such selfless love will evoke, but not demand, a corresponding response from the other. Agape love is about giving; it is not about getting, or winning, or possessing. It is the richest, the greatest, the most precious gift one person can bestow upon another; and when people choose to love one another in this way, there are no crises they cannot resolve together.
Next, find the humor that underlies the stresses of the holiday season, even during unprecedentedly difficult Advent seasons. Every married couple has a story similar to that of the Greggs’ first Christmas together. And the memory of them always evokes a smile, because once we laugh together about life’s circumstances, we can then begin to work together toward resolution of the stresses. Now, listen carefully. I’m not talking about putting on a false face and having a “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Current circumstances are too serious for such superficiality. All I’m saying is that laughing together is one of life’s best stress relievers, and while we use the phrase from time to time, I’ve never really known of anyone who died laughing. But people die all the time while they are shouting, swearing, shaming, shunning, or slandering one another. Humor reminds us that even the deepest darkness of despair cannot be allowed to be victorious. We must embrace the angelic announcement, despite the darkness surrounding us: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . .” (Luke 2:10).
Third, remember that the only thing that never changes in life is the reality that everything changes in life. We can treasure the moments of the past, but we cannot infinitely perpetuate them. Children grow up, relationships flourish or dissolve, bodies age, minds fade, communities and churches are transformed by economics, demographics, technology, and the whims of fashion and taste. The Advent season is a time for recalling past experience and the richness of our religious and cultural heritage. But do not allow nostalgia for bygone days to prevent you from experiencing the timeless blessings of the present and future seasons. Doing so may require some concessions and compromises on your part, but stubbornly refusing to adapt is permitting our recalcitrant denial that the past is past to destroy the possibility of our having a joy-filled future. Frankly, I can make it through each future Advent season without celebrating the season in the same ways I have in the past. I would prefer to adapt to the demands of the present than die clinging to the past. There are too many future Advents I hope to celebrate with family, friends, church families, etc. for me to risk my life, and the lives of others, simply because I insist on observing Christmas during a time of crisis the same way I always have in the past.
Finally, as you journey along the road toward Bethlehem this Advent season, light the candles, and thereby keep pushing back the encroaching darkness with its Herod-like malevolence that would slaughter our innocence.
Early in the development of Christian worship, much attention came to be paid to the images of light reflected in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. From the Genesis announcement that God said, “Let there be light,” to the words of Jesus, “I am the light of the world,” this image of light has profoundly influenced Christian thought and witness. For many decades congregations have made use of the Advent wreath, with its progressively lighted candles, to mark the stages of the journey toward the birth of the Christ child. Some, in their family worship at home, make use of the Advent wreath as a part of their more personal observance of the Christmas season. This is a practice I encourage, for I think it is of immeasurable value in helping people to keep their focus amid the stresses of this time of year.
While there are no absolutely uniform traditions regarding the color of the candles or the order of their lighting, there are two sets of interpretive symbols I think are particularly meaningful. For some, the candles represent the central Christian attributes of faith, hope, love, and joy. Others, with emphasis on the unfolding progression of God’s revelation, call the first candle the Prophecy Candle, the second the Bethlehem Candle, the third the Shepherd’s Candle, and the fourth the Angel’s Candle.
For me, I find these sets of interpretive symbols most meaningful as they intersect. For when we merge the images of faith and prophecy, we are reminded that Christians do not have faith in faith; our faith rests in the faithfulness of the God who made promises to the patriarchs and matriarchs and prophets.
Bethlehem and hope symbolize the nurturing power of God that sustains us through the most difficult times. The word Bethlehem is a compound of two Hebrew words beth (= house) and lehem (= bread), so the name of the village of Jesus’s birth is literally “the house of bread.” Bread nurtures us, bread sustains us, bread keeps body and soul united, bread keeps us alive. The Apostle Paul told the Roman believers, “we are saved by hope . . .” (Rom 8:24). In 1 Timothy 1:1 the author rooted his entire Christian identity in “our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope.” As surely as bread nurtures our bodies and keeps us alive, hope nourishes the soul and enlivens the human spirit.
The Shepherd’s Candle, seen as the Candle of Love, is especially meaningful. Tradition has idealized the role of the shepherd in biblical times through association with the shepherd boy David and the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem the night of Jesus’s birth. But in truth, the image of shepherd was not revered and respected in the first century; shepherds were often viewed as dishonest, undependable, lazy, and immoral. The wonderful irony of the shepherds’ witness to the birth of the Christ child is that these men were the outcasts of their society. Not respected and admired, not loved and trusted, they were viewed as the unlovely, the least. But God valued them so highly that they were among the first to hear for themselves, and then announce to others, the good news of God’s redemptive love.
Last, the fourth candle combines the symbols of joy and the angelic hosts’ triumphant song: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace toward [people] of goodwill” (Luke 2:14).
And so I say again, light the candles and keep pushing back the encroaching darkness. Light them in your churches and light them in your homes. But most of all, light them in your heart. Light the candles to keep yourself reminded that the hope that saves us in Jesus Christ will nurture us with the bread of life as we journey through the dark wilderness of life’s circumstances. Light the candles to keep yourself reminded that God’s redemptive love encompasses the sinner as well as the saint, the down and out as well as the up and out, the broken, the bruised, the misunderstood, and the lonely. Light the candles to keep yourself reminded that joy is not reserved for the angels; one of the signs of the Spirit of God in our lives is joy (Gal 5:22).
This post first appeared in Bowl Ecclesiology: Essays in Christian Critical Thinking by D. Larry Gregg.