Everyone knows Christmas is about giving, and who could have any problem with an annual holiday centered on gifts? In a booming economy when consumers are spending, there are no losers; everyone gives, receives and feels good. The atmosphere saturated with preternaturally familiar sights and sounds, Yuletide expectations universally soar. Tradition rules the season, and there are no surprises.
Let’s go back for just a moment to the Old Testament. The Israelites expected a great king; they got a baby. Everyone expected a powerful leader; they got a baby. Generations had longed for liberating, retributive justice; they got a baby. Received wisdom—born of suffering, prayer, interpretation of Scripture—was in for a shock at the hands of an inglorious infant, whose destiny was not a triumphal ascent of the highest throne but the slow march of a donkey, not wielding power but turning it on its head.
Wrapping and unwrapping presents—arguably the defining act of secularized Christmas—has the veneer of mystery about it, but ironically there is precious little surprise left in this holiday. The debunking, even disappointment, of expectations—the effect of the original Christmas—has no place in today’s manufactured “magic of Christmas,” in which the goal is the fulfillment of expectations.
Let me be clear: I’m not above wanting or buying things. But in its commonly celebrated form, Christmas—by which I mean that two-month period beginning after Halloween—is both cloying and unnourishing. It’s too protracted and kitschy, too crass and denatured. Christmas is an important season for charities and shelters because it often brings out people’s generosity, and I celebrate this. But while examples of generosity abound and are commendable, even inspiring, this maintains the identity of Christmas with giving and does nothing to restore the sense of Christmas as surprise and revelation—that is, as epiphany.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Two of my dearest friends just returned from the outer reaches of Siberia with their newly adopted baby girl. While there they sent some reflections by e-mail, one passage of which leapt off the screen and grabbed me with its utter humility, wisdom and truth: “It is not by our own merit or ingenuity that we have the means to adopt a child who could not be cared for here. It is geopolitical forces bigger than all of us. These last years have been a windfall for the United States, and largely this has come at the cost of many other people here and elsewhere. All measures show that capital wealth is not spreading, but consolidating. Really it is mere caprice that scales are tilted as they are now.”
My friends’ keen and deeply felt perspective centers me, and their journey dramatizes the difference between expectation and waiting. The culture generally encourages an attitude of expectancy, anticipation and excitement, to say nothing of frenzy, during the buildup to Christmas. But Advent is more about longing than excitement, more humbly hope-filled than expectant. By contrast to the widespread air of jaunty carols, glittering lights and wide-eyed preoccupation with knowing what you want to give and to get, Advent’s candle-lit mood bespeaks dark days of unknowing and not-possessing. Just so, my two friends’ journey has been marked by waiting and uncertainty: from initial inquiries to the first long trip to be interviewed by various agencies, to the final trip in which, still not sure they’d be approved by local courts, they anxiously paced the streets of a small Russian town for two weeks.
Loving and determined patience characterized their waiting, and, remarkably, the miracle of the gift they were to receive did not overshadow their sense of being a small part of a reality magnificently larger than themselves. Finally getting what they had for so long worked and traveled and prayed for has filled them not so much with satisfaction as desire. This is what Christmas must be: less a culmination or completion than a point of embarkation. Joy, yes; but with the conclusion of one journey—as with the shepherds, the magi and the Holy Family themselves—comes the inevitable journey homeward. With and in Christmas must be the desire to incorporate the attitude of Advent—the joy and longing and searching and surrender and determined waiting—into our everyday lives. We all need to bring the baby home.
For my friends, the return home will be anything but a retreat to the safe, known and comfortable. To enter the manger and pick up the baby is to step outside oneself and, if only imperfectly, see the world afresh. A daunting prospect, that. One might expect that undergoing such an extraordinary ordeal in order to acquire a new child would turn a family’s focus inward for a time. But far from having a telescoping effect, this experience has broadened and enlarged my friends’ view. “Family” for them is now intertwined with the global family.
What my friends brought home for me is the wisdom of embracing the present moment—that is, reflecting candidly on their place in the world—even while waiting hopefully for a child. Who are we, how do we understand ourselves in relation to others, and what do we do with what we have? Such questions propel us to the realization that while Christmas is the goal—that which we long for—it is by no means the end. Advent, too often confused with “the season of giving,” is a metaphor for the journey—the responsibility—we’re all invited to undertake; for it takes a lifetime to learn the mystery of giving ourselves over to that which we cannot hold or possess or know, but nevertheless seek.