Last night, I dragged the last of our Christmas trash to the curb. We hadn’t quite gotten ourselves sorted out earlier in the week to meet the post-Christmas trash pick-up day in the midst of the happy holiday hub-bub. So, with the accumulated stuff piling up, it desperately needed to go.
I glanced up and down the street and noticed that our neighbors were doing likewise. On this particular trash day, we were all throwing out more stuff than usual. Piles of boxes circled rugged plastic trash cans, the recognizable detritus of gifts – the boxes, the packaging, the wrapping paper to keep it all secret – for which a child (or an adult!) had hoped all year long.
There’s a distinct sadness to seeing all that trash at the curb, and on being on this side of all that hope unwrapped. The longed-for toy has likely already lost a bit of its charm that it was brimming with on Christmas Day when it was first unwrapped. Within a week, we have discovered that this thing — the hoped-for, longed-for thing — can only give what it’s capable of giving, and not a bit more.
We want more, don’t we? All through Advent, if we kept the season, we plumbed our longings. We lived intentionally in the minor key of life. We learned to say, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and asked the Holy Spirit to make our muddled hearts desire him more truthfully. We took our longings to the Lord, and told him that he alone is the satisfaction of our hearts; that he alone is capable of the rescue we need; that he alone is our much longed-for gift.
Christmas Day bursts like fireworks into our dark, longing-tinged sky. Bells! Alleluias! The suspended discords resolve into bright major keys! Christ has come! Families and friends gather, collectively conjuring wonder and delight, giving gifts, serving rich food and drink. There is a distinct change to the public rhythms of the day. The streets are quiet; many stores actually close. For a short time, everywhere, life as it is normally lived is truly transformed into something different.
As a child, I remember dreading the end of Christmas Day, when the darkness would begin to creep back over the light of the day. In the midst of all that supreme satisfaction and feasting, longings still returned. What we hoped would be an eternity of joy would resolve back into the discord of a good thing ending. Now, as a parent, I notice that instinct in my own children, who have begun saying (with no help from me), “Christmas goes so fast!” and, “Ugh! Now we have a whole year to wait until next Christmas.” And, in time, we drag the Christmas trash to the curb, and eventually, perhaps even the beloved Christmas tree, which is also a solemn sight.
In the movement of the church year, this stretch of time between Christmas and Epiphany is the Christmas season, and there’s much to be said for attending to this season as fervently as we attended to Advent. The truths of Advent are answered by the truths of Christmas, for Christmas isn’t merely a day. The Christmas trash may now be at the curb, but the reality of Christmas – Christ’s coming – must still be unwrapped and savored in our hearts. We must chew on and feast on these wonders and delights. We must keep the joy of his coming kindled in faithfulness. The deeper truth, even as we drag the trash to the curb, is that life as it is normally lived is being transformed. He is accomplishing it, just as surely as he accomplished his first arrival on a starry night in Bethlehem.
The images invoked by the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” – that benign holiday ditty of a lover and his absurd escalation of gifts – might assist us in conscientiously tending Christmas with as much commitment as we tended the sober longings of Advent. (It’s contested whether the song has deeper spiritual or catechetical meaning. That’s not my point here, although I hardly see the harm in finding parallels between the lyrics and Christian teachings.) Christmas Day marks the beginning of the feasting season, the start of the leaven working through the dough of life, and with each new day of the season, the lover gives his beloved even more gifts than the day before. The gifts may seem nonsensical, but the listeners are left marveling at the lover’s capacity to surprise and delight with each new delivery.
What’s worth hanging onto from this song is the picture that the Lover of the World – Jesus the Christ – has come, bearing the gift of himself to his Beloved. With each “day,” his kingdom grows. And it is a kingdom as varied as the gifts the lover of the song gives, involving every aspect of creation — the cacophonous birds and the fruit-bearing tree; men and women; cultures and cultural artifacts; people at work, milking, piping, drumming; and people at worship, leaping and dancing.
As Kuyper once said: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence, over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” It’s all his – the rings, the birds, the trees, and the people. There is no moment in human existence that he also did not live in obedience, including when he himself – the Light of the World – was dragged by all of humanity to the curb as so much Christmas trash; when he himself, our Great Gift, our Longed-For Hope, was put outside the city gates as refuse.
The light of Christ’s coming will not be extinguished by any creeping end-of-day darkness, no matter how threatening it may appear. Yes, our Advent longings return. We are still a people waiting, but we wait in fervent Christmas hope. We live, move, and have our being in the deeper Christmas reality that he has come. His Second Advent is sure.
For Anglicans, today marks the Eve of the Holy Name, a celebration of the name of Jesus, and a celebration of his Kingdom – raucous, life-bestowed, teeming, and expanding – that bears his Holy Name. Praise his Holy Name! Praise his name as you drag the Christmas trash to curb, for the gift you need and long for has, in truth, been given to you!
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights. Praise him, all you angels of his; praise him, all his host. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens. Let them praise the Name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created. He made them stand fast for ever and ever; he gave them a law which shall not pass away. Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea-monters and all deeps; Fire and Hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will; Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; Young men and maidens, old and young together. let them praise the name of the Lord, for his Name only is exalted, his splendor is over earth and heaven. He has raised up strength for his people and praise for all his loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near him. Hallelujah!
– Psalm 148, The New Jerusalem Bible
Photo: Wong Mei Teng