The following commentary was first posted on December 11, 2008, and relates to the Advent theme of Joy.
If you live long enough you will go through many Christmas days. Even though we may go through the same kinds of rituals every year, our experience of Christmas varies in the different seasons of our lives. When I look back over my own life, I can see how this season has brought joy to my heart during every phase of my lifecycle.
When I was a child Christmas was fun even without thinking about Christ. Yet when I think about those Christmases of childhood, what I remember most are the annual Christmas pageants at our church. They were simple affairs. Someone read the story of Jesus’ birth while we kids stood around bales of hay, dressed in bathrobes as shepherds or kings, staring into the bright stage lights of a darkened room. Somehow the wonder of the story of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus penetrated my soul as we listened to the words of St. Luke in the cadences of King James’ English.
Christina Georgina Rossetti describes the scene as I imagined it as a child in one of her poems.
Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cock-crow
Jesus Christ was born:
Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world His hands had made
Born a stranger.
After I had grown and was married with two sons, Christmas was mostly a church affair. I was a pastor of a church, but I do not think we were more involved in Christmas activities than many other families. Sometimes we were so busy it was hard to keep a connection to the meaning of the celebration. After all of the parties and programs, finally came the climax of the last service on Christmas Eve at midnight. If busyness had numbed my sensibility, the conclusion of the last service never failed to bring home the meaning of our celebration. We would light our candles and sing, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” We tried to be creative in all our services and do different things every year, but the closing ritual was always the same. Our family and every other family and person in the church looked forward to that moment when we would light our candles and sing,
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
radiant beams from thy holy face
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
It was one of those moments every year when I think all of us felt the joy of being a part of a community centered in Christ.
As I got older, I came to appreciate more the symbolism of light in the liturgy for Advent and Christmas. I am one of those affected by the loss of sunlight during the time of the winter solstice. I discovered that my hunger for light during these short days makes my soul feel more keenly for the light of Christ. When the nights become as dark as ink, and the brilliant old stars circle overhead and glitter in the cold sky, I am eager to hear Isaiah tell me again,
The people who walked in
have seen a great light.
These days I look forward to the happiness of the season, but I do not demand that the season make me feel a particular way. What I do feel is a need to enter a contemplative mood so that I can reflect upon the truth at the heart of the Christmas celebration. I find myself pulling off the shelves some old books I have read many times. In them are the writings of ancient Christians who had a feeling for Christmas as a celebration of a great mystery — the mystery of the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ. I realize that it is this mystery that has touched me over all the years at different times of life. It is the good news that God has come to us in our human history, something we shall never fully comprehend, but which makes life worth living.
I developed the habit of editing the words of some of the old masters and turning them into verse. Here is an example from Gregory Nazianzen (A.D. 325-391):
Christ is born, glorify Him!
What was done, and what is the great Mystery
that concerns us?
An innovation is made upon nature
and God is made Man.
And the Son of God deigns to become and be called
Son of Man
that the Incomprehensible might be comprehended.
He who gives us our being
also gives our Well-being,
or rather restores us by His Incarnation.
You never know what problems you may be facing, or how you will feel, as Christmas comes around every year of your life. When we think on him who has come for us, there is always joy. Christmas finds its center in Christ and comes just in time to show us why we love him and find hope for our world and our lives, no matter what age we are.