In my Thanksgiving meditation last week, I quoted the Heidelberg Catechism’s answer to its first question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Today, nearly a week into Advent, it’s particularly fitting to consider the point to which the Catechism immediately turns: our desperate situation without Christ.
Advent is the season of preparation—for Christmas (which is the celebration of Christ’s first coming), for his coming in glory on the last day, or for God’s coming in power or in judgment, but primarily for Christmas. And an essential part of being prepared for any holiday is understanding what it means and why what it represents is or was necessary. For example (aside from every religious or secular holiday that is still celebrated as more than an excuse for days off, retail sales, or obligating people to buy stuff …), when God commanded the celebration of the Passover, his directions explicitly included the edification of his people’s children, so that it would not become empty ritual, with the personal phrasing “… what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt,” a way of putting it that continues (in different contexts) even when the immediate audience primarily consisted of those who had been at most young children at the time of the Exodus.
Christmas is not primarily about the details of and circumstances surrounding the Savior’s birth. Not that thee are unimportant—but they are of secondary importance. As I wrote last year, the fact of the Incarnation—that God became man—is what we ought to be celebrating as of first importance, just as at Easter it is the fact of his resurrection, rather than any of the stories of how it was discovered or announced, that is the cause of yearly jubilation world-wide. And, just as at Easter, we must bear in mind the reasons. In the case of Easter and its preparation-season Lent, this is the knowledge that had Christ not died, we would have to pay for our own sins, and had he not arisen we would likewise still be dead in our sins. Similarly, in this season and for Christmas, to have the comfort that God by his gospel provides to his elect, we must understand “how great our sins and misery are.”
Why should we be surprised that Christmas has become a “shopping holiday” and no more for our no-longer-Christian culture? The true joy of Christmas depends on a right understanding of the gravity of our sins and shameful, hopeless condition, but our culture (as well as, to our shame, many who call themselves Christians) has lost even the comprehension of the term, let alone any acknowledgment of God’s rightful authority or shame at our failure to keep his just law.
But, as I said, the true joy of Christmas depends on knowing “how great our sins and misery are” (as the Catechism puts it)—which, in this season, ought to lead us to penitence, repentance, and holy living, just as an awareness of God’s possibly-imminent coming (whether in glory at the end, or in judgment or in power) should also do. So why does so much of the church ignore everything but (premature) celebration for this entire season?