For American culture, the Christmas season begins November 1. Americans go all out observing Halloween, dressing up and passing out candy, then the next day we immediately start decorating and shopping for Christmas. When I was young, the Christmas season didn't start until the day after Thanksgiving. After Halloween we prepared for Thanksgiving-- cornucopias, dried leaves, and pilgrims-- no one shopped or decorated for Christmas until the Friday after Thanksgiving. Now Thanksgiving seems like a small blip on the radar, a short interlude on the way from Halloween to Christmas.
It's that context the the church calendar is all the more important. In the church, we count time differently. When the world has entered into the throes of Christmas six weeks before the season, the church says, "Wait! The celebration of "God with Us' is so important, so significant, and so cosmic, that we need time to prepare!" And by prepare, the church doesn't mean making sure there's cranberry sauce on the table Christmas Day or that all the presents are wrapped. What the church means by taking time to prepare during the four weeks of Advent is that we must prepare spiritually. We must hear the words of John the Baptist once again, "Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!" Our hearts, our minds, and our spirits need to be made ready. Celebration can only be had after preparation.
John begins his Gospel with the words, "In the beginning." Clearly we are meant to be transported back to the first book of the Bible when it all began, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Way back in the time before time, God spoke and the universe exploded into existence, space and time moving out in an instant expanding from nothingness into creation-- physicists call it cosmic inflation. The Word of God spoken is powerful! It brings all things into existence. It hurls the planets into their orbits and puts the stars in their place. It's a mystery beyond comprehension; yet we are here, we exist to reflect upon it.
But John is not content to leave us back in the past at the moment of creation. The powerful Word of God that creates all things is still active. Creation gives way to new creation. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). John is telling us that the Word of Creation, the powerful, incomprehensible, infinite Word of God-- God himself-- packaged himself in the flesh of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. The same incomprehensible God in a way we cannot fathom, enfleshed himself in a first century Jewish baby in order "to live among us." In Jesus, God moved into the human neighborhood.
Is it any wonder we need Advent? We cannot welcome God with Us without preparation. We must get ready. The Creator of the Universe is also our Savior! In Christmas, God doesn't just give us a gift of information about himself. God gives us the gift of himself. Jesus is true God of true God. It's impossible to imagine, but the God who creates all things will not be tamed by our inability to comprehend, understand, or even believe. God will not conform to what we think is possible.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
So, ready or not, here God comes. We need to prepare for this cosmic Christmas. We need Advent. But even if we are not ready, God has still arrived wrapped in swaddling clothes. God will not even be bound by our lack of readiness.