Today, like churches all over the world, my church observed the second Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation to welcome Baby Jesus, the Christ Child, whose humble birth Christians celebrate at Christmas.
For me, an aura of holiness seems to saturate the very air every Christmas season. Christmas Eve, in particular, holds a particular sweetness to me.
One could argue that it’s a carryover from my childhood anticipation of awakening the next morning to the wealth of gifts that the mysteriously powerful Santa Claus would have left under our Christmas tree overnight for me and my brother and sister.
Or maybe it’s the giddiness of having my grandparents spending the night and my grandmother singing, “Christmas Time’s A-Coming” and then watching the 10 o’clock news to see the weatherman tracking Santa’s progress across the weather map.
Or it could be the joy of snowing our Christmas tree, decorating it, then sitting in front of its twinkling lights in a darkened room that night before we go to bed, savoring the quiet, letting the peace of just being still calm our hearts and minds.
Or perhaps it’s the anticipation of meeting my cousins at my great-aunts’ house on Christmas Day for a delicious meal followed by an exchange of gifts like socks, pencils and crayons, and Lifesaver books, then watching my brother Bob and cousin Mac setting off fireworks in the middle of the rural Alabama road.
Or it might be the joy of being out of school for several weeks, and the happy near-certainty of getting to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day with my first cousins.
But, no…no. No, those are not it. All of those things contribute to the pleasures of the season, but none of them hold the essence of Christmas. They are special things, but in and of themselves they are not sacred.
Every year, I read magazine articles and devotional booklets that rail against the commercialism of the season and moan about how easy it is to become so busy that you forget “the reason for the season.” But for me, the underlying sacredness of Christmas permeates everything: the greenery and candlelight in homes, in stores, in churches, even in offices; the brilliant twinkling colored lights of countless downtown street lampposts; the gala atmosphere of parties with coworkers, families and friends; the favorite music and television shows and movies of the season; the hustle and bustle of stores as people seek gifts to delight loved ones; the sparkle in children’s eyes as they watch the community Christmas parade and run to catch candy thrown from floats and clowns and beauty queens and Santa. Somehow, in all of it, I find the joy of the sacred.
Christmas also highlights for me, more than any other holiday or season, the strong elements of the Jewish faith that permeate the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The dates of Hannukah coincide with the Christmas season. This year my Jewish friends will celebrate Hannukah beginning the evening of December 24, 2016, and extending through January 1, 2017.
Many Christmas carols feature melodic lines with minor chords typical of music from the Jewish tradition, as well as lyrics from the Old Testament prophets that predict the coming of the Messiah.
Jesus’ lineage, as listed in the first chapter of Matthew, reads like a Who’s Who of the Old Testament. His parents took Him to the temple as soon as they could, where Simeon and Anna recognized Him as the Messiah and proclaimed it to all within hearing. When He was 12, Jesus debated in the Temple with rabbis and scholars, neglecting to tell His parents, Joseph and Mary, of the change of schedule for the trip home.
This Christmas season I find myself feeling even more strongly this visceral connection to Christianity’s roots in Judaism.
I am currently reading a book that reminds me of why I find reading such a delight. On every page of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, I find myself learning something I did not know before, and marveling at how much information exists out there. The more I know, the more I realize how little I know about this world we live in.
And somehow, in reading this book and marveling at the intellectual nuances of the Jewish faith, I find my own Christian faith stronger. Stronger, and yes, sweeter, as we progress through the Advent season toward Christmas Eve, the sweetest, holiest, most sacred night of all.
In my mind’s eye, Christmas Eve has always been, and still is, overlaid within the embrace of a midnight blue sky lit by the twinkling glimmer of a hundred thousand stars; with the sensation of angels’ wings brushing the air around me; with the ethereal harmonies of a heavenly chorus echoing softly in the air; with the shadows of shepherds and sheep dotting the moonlit hillsides; with the dim lantern-glow of a stable warm with firelight and the sweet musty smell of hay and livestock as a young, overwhelmed couple contemplate their newborn child; with the mysterious Magi compelled to journey across long miles to bring gifts for the King they know the Christ child to be.
Christmas Eve is sweet anticipation that yields to the joy and relief of Christmas Day, when Love came down, when all that is sacred became flesh and they called His name, Emmanuel, meaning, God with us.