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Advent and Christmas: the journey from a child’s questions to an adult’s understanding

By the Rev. Kimberlee Payton Jones

Christmas lost its magic for me when I was young. It simply lost its appeal.

The absence of desired gifts led me to build up a wall to quell my excitement and avoid inevitable disappointment. I learned to smile a plastic smile and politely thank my mother and extended family for socks and chemistry sets. Perhaps, more importantly, I was never able to reconcile the story of Santa — who delivered toys to everyone around the world — with the nativity story. Despite my efforts, I could not hide my feelings from my mother. She sensed my struggle and would often say, “If you don’t believe, you won’t receive.” I most certainly did not believe in a Santa that gave some children their every desire, yet overlooked the requests of others.

Even so, something in me longed for those days of anticipation of the wonder of Christmas morning. I remember the countdown calendar that I had made in kindergarten — a series of construction paper circles stapled together. One was removed each day until Christmas, but what was the point if nothing magical happened on Christmas morning? What good was excitement and anticipation if nothing positive ever manifested?

I remember singing about the 12 days of Christmas and wondered why the singers’ family received gifts on each day, instead of just one. It made no sense to me. As I grew older and could ponder the deeper meaning of the lyrics, Christmas meant little to me. Even as an adult, when I could buy wonderful gifts for myself and others, I could not reconcile rushing to the mall with Christmas being the “most wonderful time of the year.”

In church, I learned about the birth of Jesus, the three wise men and the star they followed. I sang a favorite carol about shepherds in the field. Yet, none of it made sense to me. Why were people looking forward to a baby who would become “the newborn king?” How did they know he was coming, and what did that have to do with Santa Claus? And why were we supposed to give and get presents if it was Jesus’ birthday?

I heard the story of baby Jesus, but I did not understand where that belonged in our faith tradition. My church did not use the lectionary or follow the liturgical calendar. Getting fronds on Palm Sunday was as liturgical as we got. I am sure the word liturgy was never uttered in my childhood church, nor at any of the churches where my parents sang or my grandfather preached. I never heard of Advent until I went to seminary.

Learning about Advent was key to an understanding of Christmas that made theological sense to me. I finally understood that the prophets foretold one who would come and save the people of Israel from oppression. This was the reason that angels, shepherds and wise men were so excited. Over the years of church attendance and Christmas pageants, I had somehow missed this theological connection.

In my experience, we essentially went from Christmas to Easter and back to Christmas with minor stops for Mother’s Day and Watch Night. The road to Calvary and the resurrection being the absolute highlight of the journey. When we looked at the Old Testament, it was with an eye toward the miracles that God did for certain individuals — and might do for us: “He parted the Red Sea for Moses; he delivered Daniel in the lion’s den; he kept Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace; and he can do the same thing for you.” The focus was always on God’s deliverance of an individual via some miraculous occurrence, followed by a trip to the cross, the subsequent three days that ended “early one Sunday morning.”

There was no reference to the exile, the divided kingdom, oppression of the Israelites or even their repeated turning away from God, except for cursory references to the golden calf. The prophets were reduced to men who did magic tricks, such as raising axe heads from the water and disappearing in tornadoes. They had strange visions of four-faced creatures riding bikes in the sky. Little to no reference was made to the prophetic proclamation that God would send one to set them free. Isaiah’s prophetic word was never placed in its proper historic context; thus, Advent was not explored.

The only coming of the long-expected Jesus was in relation to his second coming or third coming, depending upon whether you counted his miraculous appearance on the road to Emmaus. I was not drawn to his arrival. The sky opening up, trumpets blowing and angels standing at the four corners of the Earth all seemed pretty scary to me. But the coming of the Messiah of Advent — the one of whom the prophets spoke, the one who brought hope, peace and love — I could look forward to his arrival.

As a result, Advent has become my favorite season. It is by far the most wonderful time of the year. It is not about looking forward to presents or about how good the presents are. In fact, it is not about gifts at all. It is about anticipation of the celebration of the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Messiah who came as a little baby born in Bethlehem. It is about the hope, love and peace that come from knowing that he will someday come again.

The Rev. Kimberlee Payton Jones is general counsel and associate pastor for social justice at Lindsay Street Baptist Church, Atlanta, and is co-host of the faith-based podcast The Table Live. She was licensed and ordained at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.