I wrote this back on St. Stephen's Day (December 26) in 2011, hence some of the dated references. I hope you'll find something here worth pondering on this blessed seventh day of Christmas in 2013.
This morning I took the trash out – two big bags worth, detritus leftover from yesterday’s Christmas celebration. Although this year I did not pile the wrapping paper scraps into the trash. My environmentally conscious nine year old, bless her, made me put it all in a box to take the borough paper recycling dumpster later.
Since we live over a warehouse in a building that belongs to the lumber yard next door, our trash dumpster is also in the lumber yard. Among other things, this means I get serenaded every time I take the trash out by the PA system that blares radio music left on for the lumber yard workers to hear while they pile wood and confer with customers and drive fork lifts.
The lumber yard was open this morning, though almost deserted. Either the workers were all inside having one more Monday morning after the holiday cup of coffee, or some of them had taken the day off. Certainly no customers were in sight, and no trucks moving about. But the office and store lights were on and the gate was open, so I shouldered my plastic bags like Santa and hoisted them into the dumpster.
The music on the PA system brought me up sharply. During most of the year, what plays on the radio doesn’t register with me when I take the trash out, especially if it’s advertising. I’m forty-three; I’ve gotten very good at tuning out commercials, one of the biggest wastes of brain energy ever encountered. Usually I am working out a story or musing on a poem or looking at the sky – or on more prosaic days (and they happen) – planning what to cook for dinner or thinking through my next language arts lesson with my daughter. I only pay attention to the sounds of the radio station if they’re playing music, and then often only if they’re playing a song I know and particularly like.
The couple of weeks or so before Christmas are different. The lumber yard tunes to one of the “oldies” stations that plays Christmas music all the time up until and through Christmas day. During cold, dark December days, I get used to trudging to the dumpster to tunes like “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or (if I’m really blessed) “The First Noel.” (Yes, our oldies station will occasionally still throw an actual Christmas carol onto the playlist.)
So today I went trudging into the lumber yard, December 26, the second day of Christmas – and what do I hear? An old rock song from the 80’s. Not a Christmas carol. Not even a so-called secular Christmas anthem. Nothing Christmassy at all. And it slams home to me once more how the culture really doesn’t get Christmas.
It happens every year, but every year I forget it. Decorations come down swiftly, the stores sweep a few Christmas items onto sales shelves prelude to decking for Valentine’s Day, the radios stop playing Christmas music, even the bland songs that hardly feel like Christmas but at least pay minor lip-service to the time of year. People get back to work, most of them tired from staying up too late, some of them secretly glad the whole crazy holiday time is just “over” for another year. And I want to say “People? Seriously? We’re just getting started!”
There’s a reason there’s a whole Christmas season. The church, in its wisdom, has given us twelve whole wondrous days to celebrate the birth of Jesus – and we pack that calendar full of other celebrations and commemorations while we’re at it. On the 26th (today) we get the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on the 27th we celebrate St. John, the apostle and evangelist, on the 28th we remember the Holy Innocents who died at the hand of Herod. On January 1 we celebrate Holy Name day, remembering the day Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and named (and were met by prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna, who sang and spoke over the holy child). And of course on the 6th, traditionally known as 12th night, it all culminates in Epiphany, when we remember the Wise Men who came from the East, following the star, and how they worshipped the young child who they knew to be the King of the Jews.
It makes such perfect sense that we continue to celebrate the unfolding story – not just of Jesus’ birth and the events that took place in the days and months after it – but the unfolding story of those who would follow after him in years to come. If this birth is what we say it is – the birth that changed everything, the birth of the only one who could come to save and rescue us, the coming of Almighty God into the world of space and time and skin – then everything changes. It’s not something we can sing about and shout about for one day, and then just sweep it all away and go back to business as usual. This birth changes everything.
I wonder sometimes if even people who really don’t have an understanding of the season – who aren’t sure why they celebrate Christmas except that it seems to be a culturally acceptable time to give and receive gifts and go to parties and take time off work (and listen to Christmas themed songs on the radio) – don’t feel the acute disappointment and strangeness of the swiftness of the workaday, everyday world’s return following the celebration. Even in dim culturally bound echoes, the Christmas season can burn so brightly. The festive foods, the time spent with family that you might not see any other time of year, the chance to give help to people who are truly in need, the brightly wrapped gifts, the lights on the trees (or the streetlamps or town gazebos). The scent of evergreen and ginger, plastic nativity scenes on lawns, bright flags flapping on porches, scarlet poinsettia plants gracing front halls. Even in dim echoes, the celebration can sometimes stun us with beauty and moments of heart-rending heartache, like we’re seeing something out of the corner of our eye that takes our breath and calls us home.
I wonder too if we can’t take a clue from our ordinary, lived experience – the kind of ordinary, everyday, lived experience that God entered and forever hallowed in Jesus – and look at how we celebrate “ordinary” human birth and feel its aftermath. If you’ve ever given birth to a child, or welcomed a child into your family by adoption, you know how it feels in the weeks and months leading up to the grand event. You know the exhaustion and exhilaration of hard labor to bring that child into the world, or the anxious waiting to welcome that little one into your arms. You know that the day that baby is born, or brought home, is one of the most memorable, mountain-top experiences of your life. You could never, ever forget the way it feels. But you also come to know, through days, weeks, months, and years of parenting and learning to be a family, that the day was just the beginning. It stands out like a shining crystal, never to be forgotten, but it was just the beginning, the start of something beautiful and deep, a whole journey of learning to love that little person and make them part of your life.
Would it make sense to give birth to a baby, celebrate the fact giddily and gratefully for twenty-four hours, then say “Wow, that was great! Let’s do it again next year?” and go on living just the way you did before the baby was born, as though the event never happened? To not care for, cherish, and nourish the new life we’ve been given, to enfold that life and its rhythms and the way it shapes us into our ordinary everyday?
Of course not. Nor does it make any sense to prepare for weeks leading up to Christmas, celebrate it in giddy joy for twenty-four hours, then cart all the leftover detritus to the dumpster to workaday music and try to get back to being just who you were before the grand event.
Not if the event means what we say it means. Because every year we celebrate Christ’s birth, his coming into the world, we remind ourselves that because he has come, our lives are forever changed. Because he has come, he still comes – every day, in new ways, in the hearts and lives of those who know him as Savior and Lord. And he is coming again, one day, in great glory and power and majesty, to judge the living and the dead and to make all things brand new. So brand new that even the brightest, most sincerely beautiful and reverent of Christmas celebrations, or even that mountain-top moment you held your precious baby in your arms for the first time – are going to pale in comparison to the amazing glory that will be revealed.
O Come, Let Us Adore Him is not just a call for one day of the year. Really each Christmas prepares us just a little bit more for the celebration of forever living in his presence. And we’re being prepared not just for a season of love, but an eternity of it. A time when the glorious music that sings his praise will never fade, and the candles that echo his vast and glorious light will never be put out.