Saturday, November 19, 2011

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

I have a cynical side, and this cynical side comes up a lot in my history teaching. In fact, this cynical side in many ways informs how I teach history--not that this is all bad... could you, in good conscience, teach a class of high school juniors that Christopher Columbus was a hero who discovered a new world? I like poking holes in unexamined traditions and myths. I do this sometimes with holidays, too.

It's common knowledge, of course, that many popular elements of the Christmas season as we know it were derived from pagan traditions among Germanic tribes over a thousand years ago. In fact, there's no evidence to suggest that Christ was born in the winter at all--even the timing of the holiday has secular origins. BUT (and this is a big 'but'), I cannot poke holes in the Christmas season, like I do with Columbus and the undeserved holiday that bears his name.

Regardless of when Christ was born, Christmas is more than a day of recognition--it's a celebration; the culmination of an entire season of looking ahead, anticipating.

Take a step back in time with me, if you will, to Israel under Roman rule. You are living in the land that God promised to your forefathers, but something isn't right. Perhaps you have a vague awareness that the problems run deeper than your Roman oppressors, and perhaps not. Either way, you're waiting for something... or someone. In Scripture, you read (or if you're illiterate, hear) Isaiah's prophecies about a savior. If you're especially perceptive, you may connect the dots to other parts of Scripture and recognize that God had planned this long before the time of Isaiah.

So, you wait. Perhaps in agony. Definitely in bondage. You yearn for the day when your chains will be broken by this promised Messiah, who you ardently pray will come within your lifetime:

"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!"

Now, we step back into our modern times. We know what the Hebrew people at the time could not even guess--that the ransom would be infinite in cost, and that the captivity wasn't merely political, but spiritual!

Christ came, the Son of God born as a human child. His arrival was heralded by angels, and celebrated by shepherds. Today, His birth is celebrated by hundreds of millions (even though many do not understand what they celebrate any more than the post-Exilic Hebrews understood).

We are waiting, too. Waiting for Christ to return and for the renewal of all things to be made complete. Christ dealt the decisive blow to sin and death when He rose from the dead, but even a dying monster is still dangerous. We can still be snared by sin, though its days are numbered. We are still (or will be) struck down by death. We await the day when the victory will be complete, when the Messiah will come again to not only break our chains, but obliterate them altogether.

The advent season calls us to prayerful, watchful expectation. We try on the lenses of those who awaited the first coming as we read the Word and remind ourselves of God's faithfulness to His promises as each prophecy finds its fulfillment in Christ. We also look at Christ's own words--His promise to return, to restore, and with that same characteristic of faithfulness in mind, we look ahead to the day of His return.

It doesn't matter what time of year this happens--in fact, this prayerful and watchful expectation should happen all year round; but, being limited and broken humans, the reminder that Christmas brings is helpful.

So, I look ahead, I watch, and I wait.


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