The Time of Christmas is such a busy time for so many of us, isn’t it? Really, most of the “busyness” of the Time is in the first part, the Season of Advent. The Church Year may be divided into three Times, with each Time encompassing different Seasons. The Time of Christmas includes the Seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. The Time of Easter includes the Seasons of Lent and Easter and the Day of Pentecost. The third part is the Time of the Church, also called Ordinary Time, which runs from Trinity Sunday to the Last Sunday in the Church Year. Ordinary Time doesn’t have any major festivals, and so it’s the relatively calm, restful half of the church year. The Time of Easter has the most tightly packed single week in the life of the Church, Holy Week, with a potential of ten or more different services in an eight-day span. As much as the world outside the Church recognizes Holy Week and Easter and may even observe them to some extent, people’s preparations during that time are not nearly as extensive as are their preparations at this time of year.
There are so many things we have to, or want to, get done. The retail world recognizes the “official” start of the Christmas or “holiday” shopping season as the day after Thanksgiving Day, a day known as Black Friday, so called because it’s the day many businesses hope to get “out of the red” and “into the black” on their sales and profits for the year. Not just retailers expect to be busier; most everyone expects to be. You have gifts to buy for family members, friends, coworkers. Some gifts have to be ordered, and some have to be sent to the recipient. Send out Christmas cards to folks. Both of those activities, gift-giving and card-sending, may have to depend on the mail or other delivery services, which can cause further hassles and headaches. You have to get the decorations out and put up. You put up the tree and decorate it—lights, ornaments, garland, a star or angel on top, what have you—hoping that the dog or cat doesn’t decide to bat at the ornaments or knock down the whole tree. There are Christmas cookies to bake, a meal to prepare, maybe hors d’oeuvres, especially if you’re hosting family or friends for Christmas Day dinner or a Christmas party. Maybe you have to put together a guest list and send out invitations. Oh, and don’t forget to clean the house before your guests arrive. I remember helping with that when I was a kid, helping my mom wash all the good dishes, and all the glassware, even the glasses that weren’t going to be used. I never understood that. And washing all the crystals from the dining room chandelier, taking down dozens of crystals, washing and drying them, then hanging them up again, just this once a year. I was sure glad when they got rid of that chandelier. Oh, and if you’re going on the road for Christmas celebrations, you have to make travel plans and pack.
Perhaps the nearest thing to Christmas or “holiday” preparations that we may experience is the preparation for a wedding. So much to get done, and oh, can it get expensive! You have to pick a wedding date, and find a venue for the reception. Well, at least that’s one thing no one has to worry about with Christmas; it’s always the on the same date—though it has been known to catch some folks unprepared for the buying of gifts: “What! Christmas is December 25th?! Why didn’t anybody tell me?” For a wedding, you have to have your maid of honor and bridesmaids, your best man and groomsmen. The ladies need dresses, and the men need tuxedos. So you have to select your color scheme, to know what colors the dresses and tuxes should be. Don’t forget, you’ll have to get gifts for the wedding party, too. At which store are you going to register for wedding gifts? You have to make up a guest list and send out invitations. Hire a florist and a photographer, and musicians or a DJ for the reception. Select the menu for the dinner. Make plans for your honeymoon. If you’re a guest invited to the wedding, you might also have to make travel plans, get appropriate clothes to wear to the wedding, RSVP—and don’t forget the gift, which means checking with the store where the happy couple is registered.
So much to get done for a wedding, it does bear quite a bit of resemblance to Christmas preparations. Have I left out anything? Why, yes; yes, I have. It’s the part of each celebration which actually makes the celebration possible in the first place, yet so often it’s the last part remembered and the first part forgotten in all the preparation and planning. It is coming before God, to the services of His house, to receive His gifts and blessing, to hear His Word, and to offer Him our worship, thanks, prayer, and praise. It is the Lord God who first instituted marriage, the one-flesh union of man and woman as husband and wife, with our first parents in Paradise, before the Fall into sin. It is the Lord God who sent His only-begotten Son into human flesh, to be born of the Virgin Mary, and it is that birth which we celebrate at Christmas, even as we now anticipate and prepare for the celebration.
When we forget the Who and the why of Christmas, and the Who and the why behind marriage, we far more readily lose the joy of these occasions. Psalm 43 declares, “Send out Your light and Your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God” (vv 3–4). When we ignore Him, our “exceeding Joy,” our joy is at best a fleeting joy. It cannot last. We grow weary and joyless. But when we come and behold Him and embrace Him and hold fast to Him, then we can truly rest and truly enjoy the celebration, because it’s not about us, or about what we have to do, but it’s about Him and what He has done, is doing, and will continue to do for us.
In this Season of Advent, we are, as we do each year, preparing for the celebration of a birth, The Birth, of our Savior, Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Yet, in the Season of Advent, we are also preparing for a wedding, The Wedding, the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, when Christ the Bridegroom shall come in power and glory on the Last Day to claim His beloved Bride, the Church. He is coming to claim us, to take us, His Church, to dwell with Him forever! We are the children of the Bride, and we are the honored wedding guests at this most blessed, most glorious banquet in His kingdom without end. In Holy Baptism, our Lord and Bridegroom dresses us with the finest garb, the robe of His own righteousness. In the Holy Supper, our Lord and Bridegroom feeds us the finest food and drink, His body and blood, as but a foretaste of the feast to come—a foretaste! What a magnificent banquet that must be, if the foretaste in the here and now is of the Lord Himself! The bridegroom and the bride give each other a wedding gift, too. Look at what Christ our Bridegroom gives His Bride: all those jewels with which the heavenly Jerusalem, the holy city, is adorned. Especially those twelve gates of pearl. What is a pearl? It’s the one precious stone made through pain and suffering. These pearls are signs of His pain and suffering for us. And what gift do we have to give Him, but our sins and sorrows and griefs?
There’s another aspect which both of these celebrations, Christmas and a wedding, have in common: the anticipation, the waiting. “Anticipation,” as Carly Simon sang, may be “keepin’ [us] waitin’,” and we get impatient, and we want to hurry things along. Our Lord would have us learn patience and exercise self-control instead. When it comes to man and woman enjoying intimacy with one another, the world and our fallen, sinful flesh say, “Hey, go ahead. Why wait?” The Lord who created man and woman and instituted marriage says, “Wait until you are married.” As He says through the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Heb 13:4).
Now our observance of the Season of Advent is not commanded by God, so it’s not on the same level as His commands regarding marriage. If folks want to celebrate Christmas and ignore Advent, there’s no divine law concerning that; it is a custom, an ancient and laudable custom of the Church. (There are a few customs observed with weddings, too.) Yet parents expect children to wait and not to peek at Christmas presents. It’s one of the lessons we expect our children to learn so that they grow up to be responsible adults. Likewise, our Lord still desires at all times that we learn patience and self-control, and that we put them into practice in our daily lives. To that end, He is patient with us. When we grow impatient and desire to speed things up because God isn’t moving quickly enough—you know, the way Abraham tried to fulfill God’s promise of a son by his own means—God may force us to slow down, and take notice of what we’re doing, and repent, confessing our sin of impatience. Take joy in this time, yes, in this season of repentance, preparation, of waiting, of reflection, to ponder His three Advents: His first coming in humility, to take on our human flesh, to be our Hope of eternal life; His present coming in the hearts and minds of His faithful through His means of grace, to be our Peace and Reconciliation with God; and His coming on the Last Day, to be our Judge, and our Bridegroom, to bring us into His presence, where there will be endless joy, because He is our “exceeding Joy.” So enjoy the wait and the anticipation, with patience, and trust in Him.
In the name of ✠ Jesus, our loving Bridegroom, and our Exceeding Joy. Amen.