Summary: The popular notion of "the spirit of Christmas" does not recognize that pain and suffering are involved. But the coming of Christ foreshadows His cross.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC December 2, 1984
Here it is only the second day of December, and already we are bombarded with Christmas carols in the stores. Already the annual countdown of only so many more shopping days until Christmas has taken on an urgent tone, and some of the eager beavers in my neighborhood have all their lights strung up. Christmas comes earlier and earlier each year, doesn’t it?
And here comes the church, getting in on the act with something called Advent. Why is everybody in such a hurry to get to Christmas? Why on the first Sunday of December are we taking of changing colors and lighting candles and singing those special songs and all the rest?
The Advent season is a season of preparation, spiritual preparation. These are days in which we begin again to reflect on the meaning, the powerful and life-changing meaning, of the God who comes in the manger stall, the God whose life is poured into our lives and whose grace is so amazing that we can scarcely take it in. This is a time to stand again in amazement at the wonder of it all, and to prepare our hearts and minds for a full-bodied, full-orbed understanding of what it means to say that in Jesus Christ the Word of God becomes flesh.
You see, in the rushed and commercial way in which we as modern Americans celebrate Christmas, we have decided that we have to be rather vague, rather nebulous about what it all means. Already I have heard, and I expect you have too, the glib and fuzzy use of the phrase, “The Spirit of Christmas.” The Spirit of Christmas – a phrase picked up by the newspaper and the television commentators, especially picked up in the situation comedies and the soap operas as a kind of catchall phrase. It suggests that there is something special about this time of year – something special, but it's not clear exactly what is so special.
As nearly as I can tell, when folks out there on the street speak of or think of the spirit of Christmas, they are saying that somehow or another we ought to be generous to one another, somehow or another we ought to be a little more warm and friendly and caring toward one another. And all that is fine, but the world as we know it seems reluctant to be specific, reluctant to acknowledge that what we are talking about, what we are celebrating is the coming of a savior. Especially is the world reluctant to acknowledge that what all this Christmas business is really about is the coming of one who is to be Lord and who comes to make demands upon us.
The Spirit of Christmas? Advent calls us to be more specific, to go beyond this warm fuzzy glowing something. Advent calls us to hear the kind of affirmation we read in the scripture a moment ago:
Christ Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found inhuman form he humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
You see, what the world, the world of commerce and jingle bells and Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer cannot see, what does not fit with chestnuts roasting on an open fire, is this striking and startling announcement that in the coming of the babe of Bethlehem there is the outcropping of the suffering of God … the suffering of God. What will never play on anybody's Christmas TV special is this: that concealed behind all these wreaths and fir trees and tinsel garlands is the agony of God, the suffering of a God who agonizes over sinful humanity. Advent helps us, you see, to understand, that the miracle of the manger is but one link in a chain of events which culminates in a scene far less lovely, far less entrancing than the manger stall.
The apostle Paul speaks to us of the self-emptying of God in Jesus Christ, the self-emptying of God in Christ. He speaks of the one who empties himself and is born in human form, and in so doing takes on himself the form of a servant. He becomes a man for others, a man who lives for the sake of others, the form of a servant.
And then, mystery of mysteries, the apostle reminds us that this one, coming in human form, this one, born a tiny helpless thing, this one, Mary's child, this one finds death on a cross on the horizon. This one steps on the road of human life in the lovely glow of Bethlehem, but his path leads to the long and arduous road which is the way of the Cross, the way of Calvary.