By: Shannon Youell
As I write this article, it is snowing outside my window. Big huge, wet flakes are plummeting to earth. In only a few minutes everything begins to look a lot less green and a lot more white. Of course, living in Victoria BC guarantees that this snow, especially in December, will be short lived.
The snow causes me to pause and think about the elements that we consider necessary or even just enhancing for us to ‘feel Christmas’. Bing Crosby’s classic lyric “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” floats through my thoughts. Perhaps for you it is the “stockings all hung by the chimney with care” or, “… in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.” There are all sorts of perspectives on what makes Christmas meaningful, on what ‘the true meaning of Christmas is’ and what each of us needs or wishes for to have a happy or merry one.
For us as Christ followers, we also look through the Advent lens of Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. This year as I’ve been reflecting upon that lens and as I’ve spoken with many people struggling with the concepts of joy, peace and sadly even a sense of love, I realized how hard it is to hold on to them when we don’t have the anchor of hope holding us steady. So often we try to manufacture peace, joy and love through all those things we ‘do’ and ‘create’ to make Christmas special, but in the end find ourselves celebrating the mediocrity of it all.
Perhaps this was the sense of Zechariah as he carried out his priestly duties just as he’d spent his life doing, yet not seeing his own hopes of either a child of his own or the anticipated Hope of Israel. Or of the shepherds, a social class of their own, huddling through yet another cold night watching dirty, stupid animals for little reward or hope of a better life. I wonder whether, in the same-old-same-old cycle of hope deferred, they had lost any sense of peace or joy or love. Without hope, can one even know or recognize the presence of the others?
Yet when those same shepherds, chilled to the bone, resigned to their lot in life, saw those angels and hurried off to gaze upon the babe in a trough whose birth they announced, returned to their flocks, their whole countenance had changed. They returned to the same mediocre life. The same dirty sheep. The same endless days and nights of poverty, marginalization, invisibility, disappointment that they’d always known, yet something had changed within them. Luke tells us they returned ‘glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen”. Hope had been enlivened within them. Joy sprang forth from their hearts and lips and God’s love in his promises blanketed them with warmth, comfort and a sense of knowing all will be put right in the world again.
Zechariah, too, gazing upon his own promised newborn, explodes in joy with prophesy and praise. “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” He uses the language of salvation, rescue, tender mercy, forgiveness of sins and light shining on those living in darkness and the shadow of death, of peace.
For each of these, the meaning of Christmas is found not in the weather, the feast, the gifts, the celebrations or even in the religious rituals thick with their own meaning. It is found in a promise fulfilled. A gift already given. A future already in motion. For each, this single moment, this single gift, this single event embedded such hope within them they could not contain it. They carried it with them wherever it went. It lasted. It didn’t melt away in short order like Victoria snow. It sustained them as they returned to the mediocrity and reality of life in a broken world where once they knew only the absence and fleetingness of peace, joy and love. Now, with this anchor of hope, it welled over into the lives of those they found themselves among.
Today may be heralded as the longest night of the year – yet – it is only a night. The dawn comes each day. It is in the night, in the dimly lit places where we often most need to embrace hope, take hold of it to bring us encouragement, rest in our souls, peace in our spirits and love in our hearts. As Paul writes in Hebrews 6, this hope is an anchor for our souls, firm and secure. It tethers us to God and changes our expectations. It focuses us to fix our eyes on the Christ and the promises of God that have been enacted through him and the celebration God’s ongoing action within the world he so loves.
Whatever your Christmas is this year, let it be rich and thick with meaning that comes from the fullness of what God has accomplished, is still accomplishing and will be accomplishing through Christ our Lord. May our hope be so anchored in him that we are enlivened with his peace, his joy, his love in whatever places, spaces and circumstances we find ourselves in. In him we find the true meaning, hope, that springs praise upon our lips and gives witness to the goodness of God in the land. Merry Christmas.