On Thanksgiving evening, hundreds of thousands of Kansas Citians make their way to one of the city’s historic shopping districts, the Country Club Plaza. They come to watch as the switch is thrown on the 280,000 colored lights that adorn the buildings. This event has been a Kansas City tradition for over eighty years. When I was growing up, it marked the official beginning of the Christmas season.
Today, radio stations and shopping centers begin playing Christmas music weeks before Thanksgiving. Halloween now seems to be the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season! Yet, somehow, though we’ve extended the season of Christmas, we have moved further and further from the meaning of Christmas.
Christmas today seems like an orgy of overindulgence. Many Americans go into debt to make sure their children have “enough” under the tree at Christmas and then watch as their kids become weary after opening so many presents. We find ourselves with a “Christmas hangover” when the credit card bills arrive. Somehow we miss out on the true message and joy of Christmas.
This is why now, more than ever, Advent matters. Advent is the way the church prepares for Christmas. Since sometime in the late fifth or early sixth century, this season has been a time to recall the meaning of Christmas. The word Advent is from the Latin adventus, and it means “coming.” Christians use this opportunity both to recall Jesus’ coming to the earth as a babe in Bethlehem and to prepare themselves for his promised return to earth. The Advent season begins four Sundays before Christmas Day, so it lasts from twenty-two to twenty-eight days, depending upon the day when Christmas falls.
In a world where so much focus at Christmas is placed on gift giving, card sending, and party attending, the season of Advent itself is a precious gift. Its purpose is to help us remember the story of a peasant girl who gave birth in a stable to a child whose life, death, and resurrection would change the world.
For two thousand years the story of Christmas has been told and retold, preached and sung about. It has been represented by the titans of art and by the purveyors of mass-produced lawn figures. We celebrate it every year with Christmas tree and lights, gifts and cards, carols and hymns.
Even if you did not go to church growing up, you’re probably familiar with the story. You know the locale-a manger in Bethlehem. You know the cast of characters-Mary and Joseph, the angels and shepherds, the wise men and King Herod. You may know the plot details-the census, the long journey, the overcrowded inn.
And yet, as is often the case, the story’s very familiarity may keep us from fully grasping its riches. We think, “Well, yes, I know that story,” as its depth and nuance escape us.
There is much more to the Christmas story than meets the eye. There are details we may have missed entirely. And there are certainly a few placed where the picture you have in your mind’s eye us actually wrong!
In this book I’ve written four weeks of daily devotions so that, during the longest Advent, you will have a reading for every day of the season. In a shorter Advent season you can double up on a couple of these readings or continue for a few days after Christmas. Each week of devotions begins with a brief introduction. I am confident that you will discover as I did that this true story never ceases to amaze.
I invite you to take this journey with me, walking the road to Bethlehem from the peasant village of Nazareth to the little town of Bethlehem. We’ll talk together about Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah, the shepherds, and the wise men, always trying to understand the significance of the child whose birth brought them all together. My hope and prayer is that you come to see this familiar story in a new way and that its message might change you, as it has changed countless others in the years since that holy night so long ago.