The season of Advent is often lost in the Christmas scramble – but it is one of my favorite times. For me Advent is about waiting – waiting for the Light. For we who are Christian it is a time of preparation. In our churches the central altar frequently has 4 candles to represent the four weeks of anticipation. One more is lit each week. This week we will light 3.
Some people want to make a big deal about the factuality of Jesus being born at the darkest time of the year – We live in a scientific age where everything is either true or not. If its not documentable it be questionable. Some scoffers point to the prominence of mid winter festivals in other cultures to support their doubts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_winter_festivals
For me the important thing is the metaphorical truth that into our human condition – into our lives – new hope can be born when we are open to the possibility –The greatest truths are often best told in the form of metaphor. Even Jesus taught by means of metaphors. We recognize the truth in the stories of the "Good Samaritan" and "The Prodigal Son" - never mind that they never happened. The older I get the more content I am to live with what I can’t explain.
For me the story of Advent is about making ourselves open to the new hope and peace that can come into our lives in unexpected forms. Hearing about the birth of a baby born into poverty... born in a cow barn because there was no room in the motel...the story becomes current for our time. This baby grew up to be in a world where he befriended the poor and disenfranchised. To think that such a baby could grow up to teach us a new way of being – based on caring for the poor, being responsible for our fellow human beings – that is the coming of the Light for me.
In the story, the three ‘wise men’ from the ‘East” gave gifts to the baby Jesus. In many countries gifts are not given on Christmas day but the ‘Three Kings Day’ – January 6 (Epiphany). Judy and I discovered this custom in Southern Mexico – where Christmas is a day of religious ceremony – complete with music – fireworks –parades - and a special nighttime mass in the churches.
Then after New Years day the streets are filled with merchants selling toys to be given on January 6. Gift giving does not extend to adults. Some Eastern Orthodox Churches and European countries also celebrate January 6 with a day of gift exchange.
Gift-giving did not become the central Christmas tradition it is today until the late 18th century. Stores started running Christmas ads in newspapers in about 1820. Santa Claus started appearing in ads and stores by 1840.
But if you look beneath the surface, the deeper sprit of Christmas can still be found. The Human Services department in my city of Fremont identifies marginal families teetering on the end of becoming homeless – The local Rotary club agrees to provide generous funding to buy gifts for the adults and children in these families. My wife, Judy interviews each family to find out what they most need – things like coats, blankets for their beds, eyeglasses, food to feed the children, etc.
We also support Christmas gift giving through Heifer International http://www.heifer.org... I think many people would be happy to receive the gift of an animal given to a third world family in their name - rather than ‘get’ one more ‘thing’ they we don’t really need. Last year Judy and I said that if anyone wanted to give us a gift let them be Heifer gifts; and we received a pig, 2 goats, a flock of ducks, and share in a llama.
I see people giving up part of their Christmas day to help serve dinner to the homeless... I see kids collecting canned food for the hungry. I see the Salvation Army people ringing their bells.... Yes I think the spirit of Christmas is alive and well.