What I learned from the Grinch during Advent 2019
Everybody knows about the Grinch who Stole Christmas. It’s a classic. I remember hearing it when I was a kid, then reading it when I was older, now reading it every year to my daughter. It’s terrible what the Grinch does, right? He doesn’t like Christmas. That in itself is a little strange to me because I’ve always loved the season. But I know not everyone does, so the sentiment is not too hard to imagine. But he doesn’t just not like it…he hates it…the noise, the presents, the decorations, the singing, the food. Wait, what? He doesn’t even like the feasting that happens at Christmas! It’s just all too much for him, presumably because he has no one with which to share it.
So what’s his plan? He decides to steal Christmas. Um? How does one steal a holiday? “I must find some way to stop Christmas from coming,” he says, in his grinchy voice. And inside, we all chuckle, knowing that no one can literally stop Christmas from coming. So, with the reluctant help of his dog Max (who is dressed like a reindeer), the Grinch takes away everything that he believes makes Christmas…Christmas. He visits Whoville, dressed the part as Santa, and takes every present, every tree, every crumb of food, and every last bit of Christmas he can find. All the things that mean something to the Whos as they celebrate are loaded on his sled and headed for the top of a mountain to be dumped.
The Grinch later discovers that, despite his efforts, he didn’t stop anything. Christmas came, even without packages, boxes, bags, food, or decorations. At first, he’s confused, since he obviously thinks that Christmas is made of ‘stuff,’ but soon joins in the holiday spirit as he hears the Whos singing and welcoming the big day. He even carves the roast beast.
Now that we’re on the other side of Christmas 2019, I have a confession to make. I was a Grinch. But stick with me…I didn’t try to keep Christmas from coming, oh no. I believe I did something far worse…I tried to make it come. I honestly believed, on December 1, the first Sunday of Advent, that I was going to single-handedly make this Christmas the most meaningful yet for myself and my family. And here’s the kicker: I’m just as much wrong as the Grinch. Just as there was really no way for him to stop Christmas from coming, there was absolutely no way on God’s earth that I could make it more meaningful. And I learned some powerful lessons.
1. Good things are not always the best. From the beginning of November until well into Christmas season, social media sites and pages that I follow (all well-intentioned) told me to download this devotional or those readings or these ornaments to make Advent special. My daughter is 8, so I fell for it. I was so excited that she is finally old enough to know what Advent means that I jumped on those bandwagons with all of my might. These ideas are all so, so good in their own right. And I wanted ALL of it.
Now please hear me out…there is absolutely nothing wrong with a real desire to teach our kids about Advent and Christmas and to be intentional about the messages they hear during the season. I didn’t learn about Advent until I was in my late teens and it’s now my favorite time of year. I love the emphasis on anticipation and longing that is so much a part of the human condition. But what I’m suggesting here is that we need to take inventory of the intention behind the things we do.
This year, I needed to make the season special. See the difference? The key player here was me. It was going to be special because I was going to make sure of it. And all of these good methods and tools were going to help me do that. So, I listened to lots of different voices tell me HOW to make it an Advent to remember. I downloaded daily reminders, family devotionals, ornaments for the Jesse tree, and even decided we should follow one of my friend’s suggestions and do a ‘kindness advent’ where we do an act of kindness for someone else every day of Advent. Are you getting the picture? It was TOO MUCH. And do you know what else? I became obsessed. We lit a candle every Sunday of Advent, watched an Advent sermon series, did a reading each night, colored and put an ornament on the tree, and did an act of kindness every day. I began to think that if we didn’t do all of these consistently that I was failing as a mom and that my daughter and family wouldn’t get the true meaning of the season. In my own way, I was becoming the Grinch…but I was trying to force the coming of Christmas with my efforts.
2. Jesus is enough. He doesn’t need our help. He came in simplicity and humility and in perfection. He chose to become human. God WITH us. No other God in any other world religion (to my knowledge) has ever chosen to come down from the heavens to be part of the human race. And what’s more, Christmas is the beginning of a story of the healing of the world that will one day crescendo into a new Heaven and a new Earth.
There is absolutely nothing I, in my striving and engineering, could ever do to make that fact more amazing than it already is. What is it about simple truths that we believe we have to complicate, add to, or interpret?
3. It’s not over. While I was in the middle of this Advent and Christmas season, I couldn’t really see what I was doing. I honestly thought that through my efforts to make the mystery and wonder become more real to me and my family that the holiday would take on new life and would linger in our hearts. It became a ‘to do’ list instead of something that grew out of a genuine desire to grow in understanding of this God-made-flesh. In true Grinch-like fashion, I saw what was the ‘problem’ with Christmas and decided to fix it. My way.
But what is becoming clearer as Christmas fades into the rear-view mirror is that Jesus is STILL HERE. After the Jesse tree was done, the sermons heard, the ornaments hung, the Advent book put away, and the candles lit, His eternal truth remains. He keeps coming. And He’ll still be here in March, and June, and October. And next year at Advent, maybe I’ll remember that He doesn’t need my help. Maybe I’ll look back on this year and remember that He’s been here all along, guiding, teaching, restoring and that the only thing in my power to make Him more significant is surrender. That’s one of the great ironies of the Christian faith. You have to lose to gain. You have to be humbled to be raised up. And you become a slave to experience true freedom.
A few days after Christmas, my friend Tish and I had a brief exchange about our holiday season. Even through this conversation, I was reminded of God’s mysterious ways of teaching us, even after the ‘obvious’ times. Our journeys have been amazingly similar. She says, “I was always striving to make things peaceful during advent so that I could focus on Christ…and was always left feeling empty because I didn’t achieve whatever I thought I needed. This year I was reminded that Christ did not come into peace but came into chaos and brokenness and that I didn’t need perfect peaceful situations to enjoy Him but could instead enjoy Him even in the chaos and brokenness and busy-ness of the season. He is the prince of peace and He Himself is our peace.”
Thank you, God, for coming just the same, whether we’re ready or not, in chaos or solitude, in spite of the things we do to prevent or or prepare for your coming. And thank you for remaining with us even after the season. Emmanuel.