Your words were found, and I ate them;
and your words became for me a joy
and the delight of my heart,
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of revelers,
nor did I rejoice;
I sat alone, because your hand was
for you had filled me with indignation.
(Jeremiah 15: 16-17)
Sometimes, in the midst of all the run-up to Christmas, it's nigh impossible to catch the real Christmas. Not that I didn't try this year. I read books about the Incarnation. I attended a Lessons and Carols service. I considered the Christian meaning with which we invest what are essentially pagan celebratons. And yet while all of this is good, I feel like a minnow trying to swim upstream in a torrent of Christmas marketing and obligatory social functions and gift-giving. Sometimes, perhaps a little like Jeremiah, I can't sit in the company of the revelers but feel the emptiness of it all. I've been here before.
The best Christmas I remember was also the most difficult for my wife and I. Some time after Thanksgiving of 1991 we received a call from a counselor at a pregnancy life care center in a small town in Oregon informing us that an unwed mother she counseled --- a high school senior --- had chosen us to parent her soon-to-be-born child. That Advent season was just that: an advent, a season of expectancy not just of His birth but of this immediate birth. While filled with joy, we also pondered what it all meant, questioned how it would transpire, and considered the possibility that it would all unwind. To believe otherwise took faith and hope. Ultimately, it took love --- the love of a child that had not come from us, who had been borne outside us but providentially for us. Thus, Advent was in some ways all awry, fraught with the thoughts not of the Incarnate One, but the child to come, and yet in so many ways our thoughts and preparations were suggestive of exactly how Advent should be observed, took us out of the Christmas rush and onto another focus entirely: a birth.
Two days before Christmas, we received an urgent call from the counselor. The birthmother was in labor and desperately wanted us present at birth. We booked tickets for our 3000 mile journey, left tree and gifts and family, moved our foreign exchange student across the street to live with neighbors, and left. Arriving, we were informed it was false labor. Since it was too expensive to fly home and then back for true labor, we settled into a mom-and-pop motel in a town of no more than 2500 people, strangers in a strange land. It rained every day. Fog and mist enveloped us. Sheep moved in a meadow outside our window. We bought cheap paper Christmas decorations and stuck them on our walls. On Sunday, being Presbyterians, we went to the local presbyterian church. The "sermon" was a reading of "How Grinch Who Stole Christmas." I waited for the application. There was none. We felt alone, missed home, family, friends, and church. We waited. We spent our days having lunch and driving around with a very pregnant teenage girl --- a girl and our baby. We waited some more. But eventually, a baby boy was born, and we came home on January 7th, just over two weeks later. Advent, Christmas, and even Epiphany were over. We missed it. Or did we?
Maybe that's the only antidote for christmas --- for the false one, the cultural one that is destined to collapse the day after --- to be wrenched out of the place in which you find yourself and be set down in a foreign land. All I know is that when you have been stripped of what passes for Christmas here and set down in a place where your focus is on a child to come, Advent becomes a sober waiting, the birth a celebration, Christmastide a long settling into a new reality. Unto us a child is born, Isaiah says. For us, a child was born.
Scripture has its own way of working in us a new reality, of course. It's just that sometimes it's so difficult to really hear what it is saying in the midst of all that swirls around us. We say "unto us a child is born" --- in fact, we say it every year --- and yet we behave as if it happens every day. But on at least one Christmas it wasn't like that for me. It was unique, otherworldly, and world-changing. And if that birth was so momentous, how can I ever again pass by the words "unto us a child is born" and not be awestruck at the reality of the Creator of all poured into a little boy?
Really. Unto us a child is born. As Jeremiah would say: "Eat that." Revel in that. Be indignant about any Christmas that passes for a celebration of less than that. Sit alone and ruminate on the love of a God who poured Himself out for a world that will celebrate anything but His birth. Rejoice, and be glad.