Somehow it is December, week three. Does it ever seem like you are waiting for it to feel like Christmas? Do you feel wrapped up in work or events or gift-buying, rather than reflective stillness? Do you go through the motions, sing the songs, yet feel far away from the Christ-child? Are you expecting your favourite Christmas records, films, or traditions to make things feel normal or happy?
Traditions—be they family originals or many-centuries long—sometimes lose the breath of life. Liturgy becomes legalism when the Spirit's spark is extinguished and sanctification depends on human effort. So it is with Christmas. The very celebration of Jesus coming near makes Him seem far away. The very events and customs that result from the gladness of Christ's arrival are hollow on their own. Sometimes we must lay aside every tradition and expectation. We must come to Jesus alone.
Expectations kill. If human relationships have taught me anything this last year, it is this. Expectations kill enjoyment when things don't go as planned, even though they go well. Expectations kill relationships when they go unspoken, and so unmet. Expectations rob us of the delight of unexpected gifts. Expectations set us up for disappointment—even in excellent things—when they are not fulfilled.
So, if you were expecting it to feel like Christmas this third week of December and it doesn't, stop. Stop expecting Christmas to feel a certain way. Stop playing that Bing Crosby record hoping to make yourself feel in the mood for Christmas. Stop stressing about gifts you haven't purchased, the packing you have yet to do, the mound of work waiting on your desk before Christmas break. Stop.
Stop, because it is still Advent, the season of waiting. Stop and breathe. Exhale thanks, inhale joy. This third week of Advent churches and families around the world light the joy candle. Joy. In this season of stress and rushing when do we have time for joy? In this world of uncertainties, arguments, abandonment, and terror that pushes people from their homeland, where is joy? In this bleak blackness of night's final watch, it is colder and darker than ever.
The first week of Advent, sunset hour, we may have had the hope associated with those first seven days. There was still a rosy glow on the Western horizon. We may have had refreshing moments of the peace of week two, like nightly repose. But week three is that fitful, wakeful hour when all is darkness, no streak of dawn appears to relieve us. And this—this is when we are supposed to have joy? Yes, joy in the dark. Joy is not happiness or painting a smile over sorrow. Joy, chara, rests itself in the middle of thanksgiving, eucharisteo. In the bleakness we give thanks. In the blackness we take joy that the waiting is not endless.
When we lay aside our expectations, we begin to see the gifts God wants to give. Israel wanted a warrior-king. God gave them a baby. Even when the babe grew into a man, He was not a rebel, though He was revolutionary. He was fierce and gentle. He was just and meek. And He was killed, not freeing Israel from their oppression one bit. What kind of “gift” was that?
If the Jews had had eyes to see, had laid their expectations on the altar, they would have found that their freedom did not need to be external. They needed internal freedom from a law that had become legalism. They needed hearts of flesh in place of stone. When God became man, He set before every human being the gift of freedom from the curse. This gift was world-wide and history-long—much bigger than the Jews had ever dreamed.
We, too, find our unmet expectations so exceeded by God's gifts that we often fail to recognise that they are gifts. How can we see something vast with eyes so small? We must learn to see. That is what we learn in this third week of Advent, we learn to see joy lurking—leaping—in and out of corners of our lives.
We learn to see both the small and the obvious good things—and our response is thanks to God. It is in those moments that our eyes are able to see the big picture a little better. Our expectations crumble, our feelings are changed, made new. When we ask God to help us know joy and receive His gifts, whatever form they take, we are made new. When we give thanks we know joy as an intimate friend. This gift of God we’ll cherish well, that ever joy our hearts shall fill. Joy, joy, joy! Praise we the Lord in heav’n on high!