Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
(Malachi 3:1-4 ESV)
Why is Christmas the most anticipated holiday of the year, yet also the biggest letdown when it comes? I hear so often about how Christmas Day and the interim between it and New Years’ is the most depressing time of the year. Suicide rates go up. All who are not safely inside the fortress of a functional nuclear family are left out in the cold.
This unhappy situation occurs among those who do not know what they are looking forward to, but they still look forward to it. (whatever it is) Even for unbelievers, the anticipatory spirit of Advent is very often a heady spiritual draught. The lights and colors of decorations, the incense of burning wood and pine, the glisten of gilded ornament all inhabit the world like a ghostly presence. Something is present and it calls our hearts both to reflect and to expect. We all feel it sooner or later, either in the waves of nostalgia or gratitude brought on by a country vista or a sudden and surprising appreciation for twinkling city lights. At dusk we leave our offices or our homes, and breathe a contented sigh (and like magic, our unseen breath is now visible in the air.)
We moderns like to think that we are immune from the seasons. They hold no meaning for us beyond weather patters brought on by the rotations of celestial bodies. But then we go and get out the holly because we can’t bear not to.
Much is made of the pagan roots of Christmas. Many haughty unbelievers like to trace the origins of its roots in Western European winter festival, the solstice, and all that and then sneer at the silly Christians who suppose that Christmas is “theirs.” But Advent is only the more Christian for supplanting the seasonal ceremonies of Celts, Druids, Jutes, Goths, and Gauls. Charlemagne knew the scattered peoples of Europe did not need to be taught how to cultivate a state of expectant waiting. All they needed to do was to be shown who they were waiting for. This is why Advent and Christmas is celebrated in the winter. The symbolic weight of the cold and dead world lies in wait for a coming kingdom that is so sure that we light fires, cheer hearts and feast in the leanest months of the year. There is a kind of exuberant impiety in this, a revolutionary spirit that assaults the cold with homy pockets of warmth steaming from mugs and chimneys, and breaks the blanket darkness with points of twinkling light. The God of the Jews reaches beyond his chosen people and the Holy City, enters the hinterlands and reconciles the heathen, barbarous hordes of the gentiles to Himself.
It has become fashionable to think of the spread of medieval Christianity as an invading horde, its leaders either political opportunists or incorrigible zealots with a literal messiah complex. Rarely are we told of what they actually were: a great answer racing to meet a perennially posed question. So Charlemagne instructed his men not to desecrate the altars of the pagans he subjugated to his kingdom, but to replace their idols with crucifixes. This is what makes Advent melodies so dissonant and yet so lilting, the taste of cinnamon and peppermint is spicy at first but with a sweet aftertaste. The world is posing a great question: “what comes next?” And the Church answers: “Behold I send my messenger.” His coming is sure, but he has not arrived yet.