Editor’s Note: This year, members of the Missio Alliance team are offering weekly Advent devotionals on the themes of Promise, Prophecy, Peace, and Praise and contemplating how we are to live missionally in accordance with each theme. This week’s reflection comes from Chris Morton, our partnership strategist. In previous weeks, we shared reflections by Krystal Speed (Promise), Helen Lee (Prophecy), and Lisa Rodriguez-Watson (Peace). We hope these devotionals will encourage and serve you as we share in the celebration of the Christ child’s arrival.
Call me a grinch, but the yearly Christmas event has always been a bit problematic for me.
I have a bit of an “allergy” to sentimentality, using rose-colored nostalgia as a cudgel to move people to an emotional response. Christendom, with its “old-time religion” or “faith of our fathers,” relies on sentiment, and nowhere more than at Christmastime. From at least the time of Dickens, Christmas has moved from a high point of the church calendar, rooted in the mystery of the incarnation, to a secularized spending event fueled by nostalgia, cheesiness, and earnestness. So, you can see why I find Christmas, with its well-meaning choruses of “hallelujah” problematic.
Like my grinchy stereotype of Christmas, the idea of praising God can become trite and empty. What is it about “praise” that seems so uninspired? Perhaps it’s how we quickly “praise God” for small things like parking spots or Amazon deliveries arriving before Christmas. We have praise songs that are notorious for their endless repetition. We’ve even relegated the phrase “praise the Lord” to a hashtag: #PTL.
But at its core, Christmas is the reminder to praise God for being with us. Praise is central to the Christian life and the Christmas story. Mary responds to her unexpected pregnancy news with a psalm of praise. Angelic choruses announce Jesus’ birth. Why is it then that our hallelujahs ring empty?
The good news is that Advent is here to save Christmas from grinches like me. But before we can praise God, there is some work we must do. Sunrise only comes after a cold, dark night. Relief only comes after searing pain. Christmas cannot come until Advent has run its course. If you want a truly “praise-worthy” Christmas, here are three realities you should embrace during Advent.
Embrace our Lowliness
According to the Gospels, the story of Jesus’ life on earth begins in a feeding trough. According to Paul, Jesus’ story begins with God choosing to descend from eternal glory to live among his people.
American Christians have a long history of ignoring this, or even trying to work around it. Our hunger for power and greatness has served as a backdrop for the last four years of American life. A segment of American Christians, perhaps feeling like a persecuted minority, eagerly embraced Donald Trump’s promise to make Christianity “strong.” While Christians may love the story of Jesus’ lowliness, we chafe at experiencing it ourselves, despite the example that God has set before us.
As Bonhoeffer wrote,
The wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.
The name “Emmanuel” captures our reason for praising God. Our praise for God is personal. It begins when we recognize that while we were weak, inefficient, boring, poor, useless, “while we were still sinners,” that God chose to be with us. The only way to be with us is to be like us.
Our Christmas praises can ring hollow if we do not first embrace waiting, the overarching theme of Advent. But truly understanding waiting can be difficult for Western Christians accustomed to worldly power. Waiting is the burden of the lowly and the powerless. What is power, after all, if not the ability to get what you want whenever you want it? Our Christmas praises can ring hollow if we do not first embrace waiting...But truly understanding waiting can be difficult for Western Christians accustomed to worldly power. Click To Tweet
If we want our praise to escape the hollowness of sentimentality we must begin by accepting our own powerlessness. It is in this lowly state of waiting, we discover God is nearby.
Mourn Before You Dance
2020 will be my 38th Christmas, and I’ll spend much of it changing diapers. In the year of COVID, protests, and fears about America’s democracy, my wife and I are busy learning how to be parents. While I fear embracing the cheesiness I railed against above, I must admit that becoming a parent changes a lot about the holidays.
My wife and I were in our mid-thirties when we were married; while we watched our cohort put their kids into middle school, we reckoned with the possibilities of never being parents. Our parenthood journey was full of years of devastation and loss before we were able to hold our child. Today, when I sing “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” I catch a glimpse of why pregnancy—a harrowing nine-month journey at best—is core to stories of waiting and praising God. (Think of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Rachel, among others.)
It can be tempting to look at my now four-month old son at Christmas time and think romantic thoughts of, “This is what Mary and Joseph must have felt like,” or “Wouldn’t you look cute in a manger?” But that would dishonor our long, painful journey to get here, and undercut the miraculous opportunity we have as parents. The Psalmist does not just say “God is great, so I’ll dance!” The Psalmist says, “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”
Our Christmas praises will ring hollow when we dance before mourning. But when we acknowledge God’s faithfulness has arrived in spite of our pain and loss, our praises are rooted in the depth of real, lived, life-altering experience. If there were ever a year for mourning, it’s 2020. But remember that God has promised to turn our mourning into dancing. Take time to remember the things you’ve lost, whether it be a job, the life of a friend, or just “normal plans” or work and school and vacation and holidays. Spend your Advent naming what it is you mourn so that God can turn it into dancing. Our Christmas praises will ring hollow when we dance before mourning. But when we acknowledge God’s faithfulness has arrived in spite of our pain and loss, our praises are rooted in the depth of real, lived, life-altering experience. Click To Tweet
Remember Whose Good News It Is
Once she gets over the angelic announcement, Mary’s response to learning that she’s pregnant is odd: she sings a song.
Mary’s song praises God, but not for some inherent greatness, for his power as Creator, or even for her own miraculous pregnancy. Mary sees in her unborn child God’s work to overturn unjust systems. This child is the long-awaited hope of the hungry and humbled. Mary sees God finally bringing justice against oppressive rulers.
As wealthy Western Christians, we often read Mary’s song and try to spiritualize it. We know that Jesus saves us from our sins, so somehow this song must be about humble sinners being rescued from spiritual rulers. We want to make it a song of praise for God’s eternal work. But such a reading dishonors Mary’s words. It removes Mary from the long line of Hebrew prophets who had proclaimed that God would work in such a way. It removes Mary from her own humble status as a woman in a patriarchal culture, as a minority in a violent empire.
If our praise rings hollow, it may be that we are too comfortable to need God’s rescue. We may be too affluent to need tangible salvation. We may be too self-assured to benefit from the God of the humble. If our praise rings hollow, it may be that we are too comfortable to need God’s rescue. We may be too affluent to need tangible salvation. We may be too self-assured to benefit from the God of the humble. Click To Tweet
Jesus’ birth is good news, especially for people who need some good news. If we want our Christmas praise to ring true, we need to spend Advent among those who are hungry, lonely, and tired. Praise rings most true when it comes from those who are the most desperate to experience God’s love and provision.
Slow Down Enough to Praise
To truly recognize what God is doing, we must take the time to be honest about what life is like when God is not doing that thing. We need to be reminded of how lost we are without God. We need to acknowledge how dark our world is without the light of Christ. We need to recognize how small our accomplishments can be. We need to accept that the good and important changes we long for will only come after a long and painful season of waiting.
Call me a grinch, but I think there’s something better than a sentimental Christmas. Let us throw away our cheesy metaphors and reject our disconnected earnestness—and let’s praise the God of lowly, the God of the mourning, the God of the hungry.
Practices to Praise this Advent
- Embrace your lowliness. Take a moment to reflect on how you fell short in 2020. Consider the goals you abandoned or the people you disappointed. Then slowly, meditatively read Psalm 34. Remember all of the “tastes” of 2020, and thank God for being close to you in your brokenheartedness.
- Seek out the mourning. Find someone who is mourning during the 2020 holidays. This could be someone who has lost a loved one, a job, or a pregnancy. Write them a card, call them, or buy them coffee. Offer yourself as person who is willing to listen to their story if they wish to share.
- Find someone who needs good news. Look for someone in your immediate neighborhood who needs to experience a tangible expression of the good news of Jesus Christ. Then, do something in response, something as simple as bringing them a cup of coffee or as lofty as organizing a Dinner Church.