One of my neighbors, who lives on a corner lot, is big into decorating her yard. For every season she sets up elaborate scenes.
Fall includes hay bales, pumpkins, a friendly scarecrow. Spring is potted flowering plants and large cut-outs of butterflies. And every season includes a new set of decorative pillows for the rocking chairs on her front porch.
But Christmas is her finest moment. She and her husband string lights in every tree, and she sets up her electric reindeer and creates a whole tableau for the manger scene. Mary, Joseph, the wise men and all the animals peer into a wooden crate where she has placed the baby Jesus. Next to this peaceful scene, she’s erected 5-foot-tall wooden letters, red and sparkling with gold glitter, spelling out the way I feel when I drive past her yard: J.O.Y.
I don’t put many Christmas decorations up because I dread the work of taking them down. I might reconsider this year — our world could use more gold and glitter, more joy.
The news cycle has been hard to bear. It’s tempting to keep our heads down, to turn off the television and turn on the holiday cheer. Social media drives stories of trauma and tragedy into our minds, and it’s more difficult than ever to sort lies we should ignore from truths we cannot evade. Our hearts are burdened by the violence we witness in nations far away and in neighborhoods close to home. We grieve the suffering — even as a pastoral manger scene in a neighbor’s yard reminds us of our hope in a baby born in Bethlehem, bombing, hostages and incursions in the Holy Land make God’s peaceable kingdom feel like an impossible dream.
“This is no time for a child to be born,” writes the poet Madeleine L’Engle, “with the earth betrayed by war & hate.” L’Engle wrote these Christmas words in 1973 after the Vietnam War formally ended and the Watergate scandal was unfolding around President Richard Nixon. What might she write today with wars raging, polarized and ineffective political parties, climate change wreaking havoc on God’s good creation? This is no time for a child to be born.
And yet, the poem ends: “Love still takes the risk of birth.”
“Love still takes the risk of birth.”
We often treat Christmas as an end, as if all we are waiting for through the dark season of Advent is the birth of Christ and the opening of presents on Christmas morning. We think of our commitments to our immediate family and focus our “Christmas spirit” within our homes. After the living room is trashed, full of ripped wrapping paper, and Santa’s cookies have mysteriously disappeared, we’ve successfully “done” Christmas. All that is left is the dreaded clean-up, while the kids hide with new devices and the adults gather up the recycling.
But Christmas is a new hope, not an end. It is a time to focus outward as well as inward. We celebrate Jesus’ first advent, with an eye towards his second, and the way God is actively at work redeeming and renewing our world. God has a plan for us, and a vision. We are not helpless in the face of tragedy. We are God’s instruments in the world, here to recognize sadness and create joy. We are here to reach our hands toward our neighbors and share the light we carry. As we move through the scriptures this Advent, we read of people suffering under the oppressive Roman empire, but the story arcs toward hope. The baby we celebrate this Christmas is our Savior. God with us through the struggle, God with us in the despair, God with us in the work for justice and peace. A new day is coming. Love risks being born. Christmas is just the beginning.