"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. . ." The irony of the song playing in the background struck me as I shopped in the relatively empty store.
While Christmas decorations seem to be going up faster this year than they have in years past, it feels more like an escape than it does an overabundance of the Christmas spirit. The trees, the lights, the songs, the red and green accents, and the forecasts of snow are still all around us—yet it feels different.
We have to wait to get inside the store before we wait in line at the register. Singing "Silent Night" by yourself to the glow of your screen is different than singing it at a candlelight service. Putting on your mask does not feel as festive as putting on the rest of your winter gear. Waving at family and friends is not the same as gathering around a table together.
It might be beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but it might not completely feel like Christmas.
So what do we do when we do not feel like singing "Joy to the World" or like we are missing Christmas cheer?
There is an unfortunate thought which seems to have made its way into many people's understanding of their faith: the strength of my faith is directly related to my feelings about my faith. If I do not feel passionate about God, I need to find a time I was passionate and do everything I can to get back to that feeling; if I am not as moved by what I read in my devotional I need to read it again; if I do not sing a Christmas song with obvious passion, then I should remind myself of how great Christmas really is.
Now, do not get me wrong, being passionate about God or something the Holy Spirit spoke through Scripture or about Jesus being born in a manger is wonderful and, one could argue, necessary. There should be frequent moments in our life when we are moved by what God has done for us; a passionate response reflects that we understand the depth of our sin, the wrath God has towards sin, the amazing grace and mercy shown at the cross, and the worship which is due God.
The difficulty with expecting an emotional response after every faith action is that the strength of one's faith becomes no longer based on what Christ has done, but it becomes based on what I have done. It puts this weighty burden on people's backs as they try to conjure up emotions—regardless of if those emotions reflect how they are truly feeling. Ultimately it can lead to a god who only wants to be present with his people when they are happy or excited about him, which is contrary to what we see about God and His relationship to His people throughout Scripture (Adam andEve, David, Elijah, Jonah, Thomas, and many others). This might leave us this Advent with the tension of not feeling like singing, but feeling like we have to because it is Christmas.
Advent is the perfect time to not feel like singing. Think about that first Christmas night. Mary and Joseph sitting frustrated in a stable because they had to travel all the way to Bethlehem while Mary was about to give birth, and when they finally got to Bethlehem there was no room in the inn. This was after the questions and glances which they probably had to endure as Mary began showing she was pregnant. These were not the circumstances they had hoped for. They probably did not feel like breaking into song as they sat on the ground of the stable while the contractions got closer and closer.
Think about the shepherds watching their sheep on a nearby hill. It had been another day of leading the sheep to good places to graze only to have a few wander off. Another day of wondering which rock might have danger behind it or which noise should concern them. Another night of sitting around the fire recovering from a long day of work. They probably sat there staring at the fire with the questions and stresses of life going through their head.
Think about the town of Bethlehem as night settled upon it. Everyone went to sleep as they had the last night, and the night before that. In fact, aside from the shepherds running through the town telling everyone about what they had heard and Herod's later order, we do not know if life changed all that much. It has been 400 years since God had last spoken to His people through a prophet. 400 years!
Think back to 1620—the year the pilgrims set sail for America for the first time. It would have been that long since the people of Israel heard, Thus says the Lord, a phrase which they had heard, albeit reluctantly at times, since God brought them out of Egypt. As they lay down to sleep that night, how many wondered if God had forgotten about them or moved on?
That first Christmas, God did not meet them in their passion, rather He met them in their emptiness. A pregnant virgin. The tired shepherds. The silent years. Then, the cry of a newborn baby breaks the silence of the night! Angels announce His arrival to shepherds! He is here! Immanuel! God with us! God has entered into the frustrations, stresses, and questions of life!
This is what Christmas is about: God seeing the misery and pain and frustrations and burdens which His creation were weighed down by, entering into the "blah" so that He could rescue them from it, and be with them as they trudged through it. It is about God being able to understand our frustrations and disappointments because Jesus experienced the fullness of life while He was on the earth.
Family issues? Jesus experienced that. Feeling betrayed by friends? Jesus knows that. Exhausted from work? Jesus napped. Feeling like people misunderstand you? Jesus went through that. Feeling alone and abandoned by friends? Jesus felt that. People not recognizing the work you have done? Jesus only had one leper come back and thank Him. Stressed by life? Jesus cried out to the Father. Mourning the loss of a friend? Jesus wept. Frustrated with illness? Jesus felt compassion on the crowds. It is about God not only hearing us and loving us when we don't feel like singing, but it is about Him loving you enough to enter into the messiness of life. Christmas is not just for the times you feel like singing, but it is even more so for those moments when you feel more like screaming than you do singing.
So as we feel the frustrations and sorrows which have been added to the holiday season this year may we be comforted by the reminder that we can be honest with God about how we are feeling and that He understands why we might not feel like singing or might not be as excited about Christmas as we have in years past; He acknowledges our frustrations, He understands what it like to experience them and, like He did that first Christmas night, He loves us enough to enter into those frustrations and be beside us regardless of if we are singing or not.
I guess the song was more right than it realized. Maybe it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas.