Stores are counting up their profits from Black Friday while their customers try to figure out how to stuff all their purchases under the Christmas tree and make plans (or not) to pay off their credit cards. Decorations are coming out of closets to make homes warm and bright, party invitations are going out, and the Elf has appeared on the Shelf. We prepare for the cultural aspects of Christmas in so many ways, some of which become meaningful traditions, but all of which can create distractions from the spiritual preparation to which we are called through the season of Advent.
This year for our Children’s Ministry, I have been preparing Advent devotions for our families to use at home based on Luther’s Advent and Christmas sermons. Luther preached on these topics and on the associated Biblical texts over and over again throughout his career. In my exploration of his work, I kept noticing over and over the sense of wonder with which he approaches the biblical text. In the middle ages, many traditions had cropped up surrounding Christmas which were not originally biblical. For example, the wise men were promoted to be ‘kings’, given names, countries of origin, and life stories. Another tradition held that Jesus’ birth was somehow magical, and that Mary felt no pain and sang praise songs to God while she was in labor. (Considering that Mary was actually having a natural birth in a dirty stable with no painkillers, no doctor, no midwife, and no family members except her husband who would probably never have seen a birth before according to Jewish customs at the time, we can guess that if God’s name came into it, praise was probably not the context.)
Luther carefully separated these extra traditions from the actual Biblical text and rejected their claims. He then turned his attention to the incredible beauty and meaning of this ancient story. Dissecting the nativity stories, Luther then considered how the writings of the new testament interacted with them, and what that means for how we live our lives as Christians. He also pulled from the prophecies of the Old Testament to examine how they inform us about who Jesus is and why God chose to come to us in that way.
We tend to complain about the distractions our culture bombards us with today, but 500 years ago Luther was making the same complaints. Like him, it is up to us to discard what leads us away from our contemplation of God’s amazing journey into humanity and restore our wonder at a story we have heard so many times that it has become part of us. Wonder is one of the gifts our children give the church. Every year, they are discovering more about this story and our Advent faith traditions. Cultural depictions of children as whiny and materialistic during this season might sometimes feel true, but since children are constantly striving to incorporate what they see in adult culture, really this should lead us to take a hard look at ourselves.
Take some time this Advent season to appreciate the way our youngest members minister to us through their sense of wonder and discovery of a God who, in a world designed for people bigger and stronger than them, brought the universe-encompassing love of the gospel down to their size.