Advent rhythms gently beat in my heart while Christmas carols boom in my ears. I feel torn between the deep ache of Advent longing and the joyful outbreak of Christmas festival. How do I hold these two distinct rhythms together? How do I journey from the Jews crying out in exile to shepherds rejoicing at the manger?
Last Monday night we visited some friends who live in a 150-year-old family cabin. Stepping into their home felt like stepping into the past. It was as though I stood in the present and the past at the same time. Is there a way to keep standing in Advent reflection while also standing in the middle of Christmas trimmings?
Christmas joy lights my city. I see bright blue, green, red and white trees glowing atop the buildings. Shiny, happy trees spring up in homes, in yards, in stores and even in some churches. Like hearty fruit trees, the branches of these evergreens hang low with the colorful ornaments and glistening lights.
Ezekiel also sees trees all around him, but these trees are not shiny or happy. They are burning. They are falling. They reveal a world coming to an end. Looking back at the sparkling Christmas tree, I begin to see shadows of another age, a sad struggle, a world falling, a prophet crying. Egypt and Assyria who once stood tall like proud Cedars of Lebanon came tumbling down when the ax was laid at the root. One by one the nations around Judah fell. Then Judah toppled. The people of God were dispersed into the darkness of Babylon. Eventually Babylon falls.
The kingdoms of the world fell and will continue falling till the end of the age. No matter how great, how glorious the powers of world may be, they will not always stand. Kingdoms topple before the King. Wicked rulers who oppress their people, wicked managers who take advantage of their employees, wicked parents who abuse their children: all kings and kingdoms will fall. Evil will not prevail. The ax is laid to the root. Only one kingdom will stand: A kingdom of love.
I continue to gaze into the Christmas tree, and I am remembering a tree stump that came back to life. Isaiah looks at that stump of the House of David where the tree once was, and boldly says,
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Is 11:1-2)
From a dead stump, the Kingdom of God springs forth with life eternal. He is the tree that appeared the least of all seeds. So often His kingdom looks weak, failing, falling and fading. Actually, His tree, his kingdom will one day grow greater than all the trees, “so that the birds of the air will come and nest in its branches” (Matt 13:31-32).
I gaze back at the Christmas tree, and I think that maybe it is standing in two places at once. The plainchant of Advent longing stills sounds in our Christmas joy and glimpses of Christmas joy penetrate the plainchant of Advent longing. Joy and sorrow are distinct and yet bound up in one another.
During Advent, I long for the king who is coming and whose kingdom of love and life will prevail. The colorful ornaments on the Christmas tree remind me of a fruit that bring will bring healing to the nations. Beholding the lights, I rejoice that His kingdom of light will shine brighter than the noonday sun.
image by duane schoon (used by permission via Creative Commons)