Among my fondest childhood memories is the joyful anticipation as each December day brought us one step closer to the dawn of Christmas morning. That is not a typical memory for a nice Jewish boy from Boston! But I had the privilege of growing up in a Messianic Jewish home where we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas.
In many ways, our Christmas experience was traditional. We had lights, a miniature snow covered village on the fireplace mantle, and a colorful collection of Christmas cards hung about the entrance to our living room. The aroma of Mom’s Christmas cookies filled the air—her chocolate spritz” was my favorite.
My father spent a great deal of time wrapping presents for the family. He began with plain white paper, then elaborately decorated each package with pictures he’d cut from magazines as well as his own drawings and personalized messages. Each work of art showed his love and thoughtfulness. We certainly looked forward to the day when we could open those gifts, but Dad’s efforts helped us exercise restraint. We would never rip into packages that he had wrapped so carefully.
When Christmas finally came, my parents knew how to move our thoughts toward Jesus and make the celebration all about Him. We would read the Christmas story from the gospels and pray. My mother baked a birthday cake and we would sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. Then we gave gifts to the Lord, usually monetary gifts in cards designated for missions.
The joy I experienced each Christmas was not about what we received from, or gave to, one another. Most of the wonder was in the anticipation; that’s what made it all so special. It was all the things we did to leading up to the day, the fun of looking forward to what was coming and preparing of hearth and home and heart for what would happen.
Many Christians struggle with the fact that Christmas has been commercialized, corrupted and seemingly co-opted by the pervading culture. Others avoid it altogether because for them, it harkens back to ancient pagan cultures. I don’t consider Christmas celebrations a “should” or “should not” issue (see Romans 14:5). I do think it is possible for those who love the Lord and want to set aside December 25 to commemorate His coming to do so. The key to redeeming the celebration and enjoying it as a holy time lies in how we await the day.
Two of my favorite people in the Christmas story are Simeon and Anna. Though they don’t make their appearance until after the birth of Christ, they each have a role in the story because they lived their lives in anticipation of the Messiah’s birth.
The Bible tells us that Simeon was “waiting for the Consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25).When Anna saw the baby Jesus, “she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Anticipation—the state of waiting and watching—properly positioned these two for what lay ahead. And so it does with us.
The discipline of living in light of God’s future promises provides an appropriate corrective to a culture that tells us to “live for the moment,” and “grab for all the gusto” we can. Even if we are able to withstand such temptations, it is easy to be consumed by people and situations that demand our attention and affection right here, right now. And surely we do want to be good stewards of today, with all the opportunities and obligations it brings. But faith requires that we also focus on the “not yet.”
Human nature presses us to concentrate on the present circumstance, the crushing weight of today’s concerns and/or the lure of its pleasures; God bids us look ahead that we may also press on toward the good things He has promised. With anticipation comes perspective.
Lighting Advent candles is one way that many choose to help anticipate the day. Light can be a wonderful symbol of hope as we anticipate Christmas day. Even if your congregation is not one that practices this tradition, it’s not difficult to incorporate something like it in our homes and especially in our hearts. Some might include more unusual ways to anticipate Jesus during a season that can easily become so busy and burdened.
When we apply the principle of godly anticipation to celebrations such as Christmas, we find that how we live and prepare ourselves for that celebration matters as much as or perhaps even more than how we celebrate the day.
In Jews for Jesus we like to anticipate the celebration by redoubling our efforts to get out the gospel. Our staff and volunteers around the world will be on the streets as often as possible, greeting shoppers with smiles and a gospel tracts.
We often find people more open to talking about the Lord during this season. This includes Jewish people, many of whom are preparing for Hanukkah, which begins this year at sundown, December 21. Despite the proximity of the two holidays, some Jewish people feel a bit “left out” when it comes to Christmas and many are rather curious about the holiday.
Awaiting Christmas Day by looking for extra opportunities to tell others about Jesus is a wonderful way to focus on the hope we have in Him. Just imagine how exciting your celebration of Christ’s birth would be if the Lord used you to help a friend come to know Him through the new birth during this season.
Simeon and Anna may not have understood the full scope of “the Consolation of Israel,” and “redemption in Jerusalem.” But they knew that the promise of God, held for so long in their hearts, had come. And in a miraculous moment they could hold that promise, literally hold Him, in their own aged arms. As they looked upon the baby Jesus, they knew their waiting had come to an end—and they did not keep the news to themselves.
Years later, two angels, perhaps from among the very ones who heralded Jesus’ birth, addressed His disciples as they watched their Master disappear in the clouds: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
And so the wait commenced again, and continues to this very day.
How we choose to anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth can also help us live in expectation of His return. The new life Jesus made possible through His incarnation and passion allows us to live in the light of the future glory He has promised. Despite hardships, or perhaps even because of them, we should always be in a season of joyous anticipation.
Unfortunately, the same commercialism and faith-crushing culture we face at Christmas also confronts us all year round. How do we keep the anticipation with which God calls us to live our lives for Him each day from being dulled by the grind of the world? And how do we keep ourselves from becoming overly distracted with life’s daily pains and pleasures? Answers may vary from one person to the next, but certainly we need to pray and we need to plan if we want to “Await the Day” as faithfully as Simeon and Anna.
May God enable us to rise above the pervasive materialism and the prevalent cynicism of our times. May we place our hope firmly in His soon coming and live joyfully in light of that greater reality. Maybe this Christmas season can give us an occasion to renew ourselves to that reality, to re-gather our courage to wait with greater purpose and more fervent expectancy, “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).