What stirs up emotional longing within you? You could be an expectant parent awaiting the arrival of your firstborn. Maybe you are daydreaming about or patiently awaiting a new relationship or job. Perhaps you have not taken time for yourself in an awfully long time, and you are planning some time away. Whatever that longing is, stop right now and eagerly consider what sensations are pouring through your body when that longing is fulfilled.
Are you relaxed? Is your heart racing? Are you filled with purpose? Do you feel a fire burning on the inside? I know you have had this feeling before, and I know that you have probably spent a great deal of time and mental energy in your life seeking after those feelings.
So many of the fantastic things in life are mundane. The objects of our greatest longing are often common, but our experience with them is new and so makes them feel unusual for a time. I suspect that a great deal of our unhappiness occurs because we take so many things for granted. And so we set our sights constantly on things that are new or different from our norm. It is as if our heart stops due to boredom, and we must be electrocuted every now and again.
Because fantastic things become mundane, we require frequent reminders. Have you ever considered why you celebrate a birthday? The only thing more common than birth is death. Why must we celebrate one’s birth every year? Does it seem odd when you see so many loved ones gathered around an infant simply because it has survived its first twelve months on earth? Many people refuse to celebrate birthdays as they get older, because the celebration has come to mean something different. It becomes a reminder that they are closer to death and thus further from birth. Except for centenarians. I imagine they celebrate every birthday, as it would become a novelty to continue chalking up the years.
The truth is, every year of life ought to be celebrated. Life is the most incredible of all miracles. The newness of an infant’s life reminds us of that. That is why we admire so much those who remain in their old age dignified, but young at heart. That is to say, they have kept the good parts of their youth and parted with the negative. Furthermore, we admire this because we are so accustomed to the inverse. Some of the most insufferable children I have ever known have been adults.
The Christmas season is one which produces in many a deep sense of longing. I suspect that most of this is nostalgia. In a time where tradition is so often subverted, Christmas remains (for now) an almost unanimous vestige of folk tradition. This nostalgia is not always associated with warmth. One may even feel nostalgic for the stressful elements of the season. For many, that is the mark of time with their families.
Although Christmas is a decidedly Christian holy day, it is interesting to consider not only its secular ritualistic roots, but also its secular practice. Like several Christian holy days, Christmas borrows heavily from folk traditions of old. This provides a carry-over into the secular members of modern-day Western society. It provides context for common ground in a sacred context. Because of this, many disagree as to what “Christmas is all about.”
As a sacred tradition, Christmas is a day of remembrance for the incarnation of the Son of God. It is a birthday celebration but an inherently unique one. The Child born that night in Bethlehem would go on to become the very first human in history to conquer death and live forever. Yet we do not celebrate His birth each year out of novelty to tally up the years. There is a sense in which a birthday celebration reminds us of how spectacular is our very existence. Christmas is a birthday celebration that reminds us of something much deeper.
In accordance with Biblical prophecy, the grown-up Jesus would not begin His earthly ministry until a prophet would come to prepare the way for Him. That prophet was His cousin, namely, John the Baptist. We are told that when Mary was expecting Jesus she visited for several months with her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting her son John:
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”
Luke 1:41-45 NASB
Before he was even born, John the Baptist longed expectantly for the coming of Christ. As both men grew up, John would go on to begin a ministry of baptism, wherein He foretold of the coming of the promised Messiah. In his first recorded [post-natal] encounter with Jesus he shouts:
“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
John 1:29 NASB
Even this notion of being excited about a Savior, despite the unparalleled magnificence of salvation, has become mundane to us in the present day. But in John the Baptist’s day, it was felt as something exponentially more profound. For centuries God had spoken to His people through His law and His prophets. Both foreshadowed the coming of a Messiah who would fulfill them both and save mankind from their sins. Then there was silence for some four hundred years. The people of God were desperate for a voice of prophecy to arrive.
John the Baptist enters as the first voice of prophecy in four centuries. He knew of his role as Christ’s forerunner ostensibly before his own birth. I imagine him being nearly overwhelmed with excitement upon seeing Jesus. While his fulness of Spirit and unique role in history may have amplified his excitement, every sinner can look to Christ with the same expectation.
This is the significance of Christmas. God made man. Man became estranged from God through our nature made corrupt by wrong-doing. God prepared a means by which man could know fellowship with God. The birth of Christ is the fulfillment of promise. No matter how typical or insignificant it might feel to us, no matter how much we might take it for granted, we celebrate Christmas to remind us of the kindness and mercy of God toward us.
To know Christ is to remember His work in the past, to seek His work in the present, and to look ahead to His work in the future when He returns. On Christmas we celebrate the fact that He came at all. As we consider Advent, let us ask God to fill us with the expectation of John the Baptist, to be overwhelmed with that sense of longing and excitement. Let us take this season of remembrance as a time to remind us afresh of the magnitude of our gracious God’s profound love for us, His people. He gave His Son to bring hope unto the world!