Recapture the Wonder of God-With-Us This Advent Season

by

Scott EricksonBy Scott Erickson

I. Love. Holidays. I’m always up for a celebration! And the crème de la crème for me is Christmas. It is by far my favorite time of year. But a few years ago, as the twinkly lights and evergreens came out, as they always do, I found myself increasingly ambivalent about the whole ordeal.

We had just finished an exhausting and divisive election. We were overwhelmed by the destruction in Syria. We had an unprecedented year of school shootings. Zika. Flint water crisis. Et cetera. And then came Christmas.

Lights! Catchy songs! Sweets! Cheer! Mistletoe (heyo)! If you live in North America, you’re familiar with the candy cane–striped juggernaut of seasonal branding that overlays every part of society like a fresh dusting of snow this time of year. Almost every aspect of Western society is decorated with holiday cheer.

But no matter how many potential kisses lay before me under the mistletoe, none of it resonated. I love Christmas. I really do. It’s my favorite time of the year. But how we celebrate it just seemed meaningless in the face of real life.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Advent is a Time to Recognize the Wonder of God with Us: An Interview with Scott Erickson]

My wife, Holly, and I have been married since 2005, and because of this partnership, I’ve witnessed multiple pregnancies and births up close—the third one (and last!) being very recent. As we started into the Advent season, I found myself moving away from the decades of nostalgia and visual branding that I had always associated with Christmastime, and I began to meditate on this sacred story—a story about pregnancy, family, incarnation, birth, God with us—through what I had witnessed firsthand as a husband, a father, a birthing partner, a human being.

Also, as an artist, I knew I needed some kind of new visual vocabulary to help me along in my journey. It seemed to me the brand of Christmas had traded its honest edge with sanitized characters in a never-ending winter scene. So I began to create an alternative symbol set for this story that differed from what I had seen in contemporary culture. I needed something honest. Something real. Something with some human grit and a little less green and red in it.

If you’re not familiar with the terminology, the season of Advent is the period of four Sundays and weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas Day. Advent means “coming” in Latin, and these weeks are meant to prepare our hearts, minds, and souls for the arrival of God-with-Us, Jesus Christ, born to the virgin Mary a couple of millennia ago. You’re supposed to feel the wait—the anticipated arrival of something you want so badly—and by feeling the wait deeply, you’ll be even more satisfied by the celebration of the arrival on Christmas Day. At least that’s the hope.

Let me give you a couple of personal definitions when talking about spirituality and religion. Spirituality is making what is invisible visible; religion is the rituals, rhythms, and practices we form to connect to that visibility.

We make up songs, sermons, little performance art pieces, to help us put shape and physical presence to a happening we find ourselves historically distanced from.

Nativity scenes are a way we visually remind ourselves of this ancient story in our present-day homes or front lawns.

Lighting the Advent candles is a way we perceive that the Light of the World has come into our midst.

Songs like O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing are catchy theological tunes that give us a chance to sing together corporately, but they also surprisingly become musical vehicles to approach the Divine with the deepest longings of our hearts.

That’s what is maybe surprising about all of this to me—we don’t celebrate Christmas like a memorial service but like a birthday party. Of course it’s Jesus’ birthday, as any child in a Christmas pageant play will tell you, but where is Jesus? When you go to a birthday party, you expect the person whose birth you’re celebrating to be there, right? First, because you love them and are rejoicing because of their presence in the world, and second, because it justifies all that cake consumption. The deepest longing of our hearts is not just cake, but to rejoice in the presence of Jesus in our midst today. So where is he?

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Hallowed Be God’s Name]

I’ve coauthored a couple of books on prayer with my friend Justin McRoberts, who has a delightful way of framing our frustration with prayer by stating that we can often confuse the mechanics of prayer with the essence of prayer. We can get all caught up with our language and body positioning and forget that these are just the invented structures that help us connect to what prayer is really about—abiding in the love of God.

This is true about all our sacred liturgies and services as well—they’re just the visible mechanics that help us get to the invisible essence of the love of God. Often we can become too obsessed with the mechanics, substituting them for the essence, which is completely understandable. It’s comforting to be able to hold on to something tangible versus the unseen wild goose of the holy mystery. This is how some faith communities become so obsessed with the style of music, certain ceremonial practices, or just anything that has a lot of nostalgia in it.

Nostalgia is the familiar feeling rooted in a patterned experience that gives comfort in the face of present mystery. It’s probably the largest influencer of church services today. It’s easy to trade nostalgia for essence. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with the familiarity found in nostalgia. Familiarity is a helpful tool. But familiarity kills wonder.

Wonder is an interesting phenomenon, because it’s that moment when all of our narratives and stories about life disappear in the rapturous experience of actually being here. Actually being alive. Being present with the glorious now. Like when you can get really close to some street musicians playing a song. Or when you pet a horse. Or when you see a solar eclipse.

Wonder is most accessible in new situations, because we don’t have a narrative about what’s happening. Have you ever traveled overseas? You may know the experience of getting off the train in a city you’ve never visited before, overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture and sights and sounds all around you, and thinking, This is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen! Then three days later you say, “I’m so bored,” as you board the train to go to the next city. What happened? Did the city change? No, you did. You got familiar with everything, and the wonder went away.

What happens when we substitute the mechanics for the essence is that the wonder can go away. I’m not saying we have to start over every time to keep things interesting. It’s helpful to find familiar rituals and practices that keep us grounded. But maybe what’s happened to our celebration of Christmas is we’ve gotten so familiar with certain seasonal mechanics that we’ve begun to lose the wonder of its essence.

Where is Jesus now on his birthday? I honestly want to know. This was actually the scariest question to me a few years ago as I was examining the Christmas celebration I grew up with. I was afraid that all I would find was a love for the mechanics but no real experience with the essence of Jesus. I wanted to have an honest Advent. One that actually prepared me for the coming of the Hope of the World—because I, and I believe we, need that hope more than ever.


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Honest AdventAdapted from Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-with-Us Then, Here, and Now by Scott Erickson. Click here to learn more about this book.

For those who are looking for something honest, something real, something with a little more human grit to it and a little less conventional red and green: Honest Advent offers a new kind of devotional.

For too many of us, Christmas has lost its wonder. Maybe for you, the joy of the season is painfully dissonant with the hard edges of life right now. Or maybe you feel wearied by the way Christmas has become a polished, predictable brand. Or maybe this sacred story feels too far removed from our world today, a world that’s hard to make sense of.

But what if the Christmas story is not just something that happened a long time ago . . . but a story that is still happening today? Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-with-Us Then, Here, and Now illuminates the astonishing, hope-filled truth that the God who showed up in the hardest parts of our humanity is still doing so today.

From celebrated artist-storyteller Scott Erickson: 25 days of heart-stirring images and thought-provoking meditations to rekindle the wonder of God-with-Us in this season. Honest Advent creates a space for you to encounter the Incarnate Christ in unexpected places: like a pregnancy announcement in an era of political unrest and empirical bloodshed, the morning sickness of a Middle Eastern teenager, and the shocking biology of birth that goes far beyond the sanitized brand of Christmas as we know it.

Then, through powerful benedictions, prayers, and questions for honest reflection, you will discover how the wonder of God-with-Us is still happening today: in your unexpected change of plans, your unaccomplished dreams, your overcrowded lodging, your humble stories of new beginnings. In a world that’s difficult to make sense of, and a season that’s so often overtaken by consumerism, find here fresh eyes to see this powerfully sacred story.

Jesus appeared in a way no one expected: incarnating by way of human vulnerability. He does the exact same thing in our lives today: bringing light and life through our ordinary everyday vulnerabilities.

Scott Erickson is a touring painter, performance storyteller, and creative curate who mixes autobiography, biblical narrative, and visual aesthetics that speak to our deepest experiences. He is currently touring his multi-media storytelling piece “Say Yes: A Liturgy of Not Giving Up on Yourself,” and is the coauthor of Prayer: Forty Days of Practice and May It Be So: Forty Days with the Lord’s Prayer. Scott is most loved by his wife, Holly, and their three children in Austin, TX.

The post Recapture the Wonder of God-With-Us This Advent Season appeared first on Bible Gateway Blog.

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