I love this season. I love the sparkling white snowdrifts, the Christmas decorations, the bustle downtown, the homecomings, the gatherings of friends and family, but most of all, I love this season for the hope that it brings, the hope -- and the longing for hope -- made visible in all of those tangible things that I love. At Christmastime, life remains as it always has been, difficult and confusing and hard, but people are happy; they are joyful and hopeful for no reason in particular.
The hope manifests itself everywhere. It is in the flood of red Christmas sweaters donned by the old folks volunteering at my workplace; it is in the holly-and-ivy-patterned Christmas socks peaking out of one woman's black slingback shoes. It is in the enormous Christmas tree downtown by Rosa Parks Circle and the inexplicable joy the good people of Grand Rapids found in lighting its blanket of tiny colored lights. I went downtown for the "lighting ceremony" and observed this firsthand: a large crowd gathered around the tree, small children running around by their parents' feet, the mayor saying something inaudible and muffled, everyone counting down, four three two one, a member of a prominent GR family pulling a lever. The lights were off; the lights were on... it was incredibly anticlimactic. But everyone cheered loudly; everyone was smiling and laughing and talking. Hope. I see hope also in friends gathered around a table filled with different types of Christmas cookies, a plate contributed by each one, and I see and hear and taste and feel deep in my bones the hope in friends gathered to reunite and sing, sharing latest chapters of life and living out community and loving so well. I find hope in Christmas music. I remember the chaos of the holidays during college; each year, I found myself listening to George Winston's December album earlier and earlier in the season as my stress level continued its ascent. Well, I would reason, October is close to December. Post-college, it still makes me hopeful. It reminds me of home. I've added Sufjan's brilliant box set and Rosie Thomas' Christmas album to the list of hope-inducing Christmas favorites, and these remind me of college friends and more recent Christmastimes. There is hope even in aesthetically unpleasing flocks of inflatable yard decorations and mismatched and flashing Christmas lights. Oh, and those big, beautiful colored lights, those do it for me every time. As do nighttime snowfalls and the smell of burning wood in the fireplace and radio stations that for weeks play nothing but Christmas music and evergreen trees and children reveling in the freedom of Christmas vacation...
I could go on and on and on.
My point is this: these things bring not only excitement and a superficial joy but also something deeper, some kind of intangible beauty and longing for something greater and more awe-inspiring. This longing, this waiting, this is Advent, and this is what we see in the prophets, the yearning and the anticipation and the preparation for the One to come. And like the prophets, behind the blinking lights and reindeer sweaters and holiday shop hops, we also are clamoring for something to make us joyful, desperate for something to hope for. We are seeking a reason to be happy and begging the heavens for assurance that all will be well. Christmastime may offer lights and presents and music and holiday apparel, and all of this can be wonderful, but we often mistakenly believe that therein lies the "something" we hope for, when really, we have only to continue looking a moment longer and to reach down just a bit deeper to find the answer that actually responds to the questions of our souls. There is something to be hopeful for, something to anticipate, and it isn't just that gold paper link at the end of the Christmas chain, the one that marks the giving of presents and the culmination of the whole season. Rather, it is the little baby the gospels speak of, the Messiah that came and lived and loved and died and rose and is coming again.
We do not hope in vain.
So this season, let us focus our hope on the God that really will make everything alright. Let us ground our hope in truth. And meanwhile, as we wait, let us live out the redemption that he promises and grasp and remember and share the life-giving hope for something brighter and more beautiful than all Christmas lights and blinking stars combined.