Some years ago Bill Murray starred in a movie that riffed on Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol . Murray played the Scrooge figure in the film: a hard-nosed television executive who disliked everything about Christmas except for the fact that his TV network could make a lot of money off the holidays.
This executive was producing a hightech whiz-bang Christmas special to be aired on Christmas Eve. To get people’s attention, he promoted the upcoming special with an ad featuring images of nuclear holocausts, drive-by shootings, terrorist bombings, and meteors striking the earth. These violent images were accompanied by the tag line “In a world as terrifying as this, now more than ever you need to see this year’s Christmas Eve Spectacular right here on NBS. Don’t miss it—your life may just depend on it!”
Everyone hated the advertisement because it was so completely at odds with the holiday spirit. That, of course, was the joke: only a mean-spirited person would link the violence of this world with the very holiday season that is supposed to make us forget about our troubles for a while.
Ironically, however, the church has long insisted that this is precisely the kind of imagery that belongs at the very head of Advent. That’s why traditionally Advent begins with apocalyptic passages spoken by Jesus very near the end of his life. In a way, the church takes that sequence of scary video footage used in the Bill Murray movie and shows it, not as the reason to watch some silly TV show but as the reason why every last one of us needs the incarnate Son of God.
We begin Advent with passages that teeter on the edge of Jesus’ death and that point to the end of the world because we live in a world where people do terrible things, such as crucify the Son of God. Ours is a world of upheaval, of genocide, of pride, selfishness, greed, and violent acts perpetrated on the innocent and the unsuspecting. Sometimes we try to forget all that. So we doll up our neighborhoods with lots of Christmas lights, transforming them (temporarily) into little fairy kingdoms.
But think about it. If the world looked that pretty and serene most of the time, then we would not need a Savior. Certainly there never would have been any need for God’s Son to go through the bloody trouble of coming here in person to die for our sins and evil.
Advent begins with a frank, honest assessment of history’s perils, of our present terrors, and of the future’s allbut- certain calamities. Looking all of that square in the face is the only way to frame Advent and Christmas correctly. For Jesus’ first Advent to have any meaning, he must have that second Advent—the one we’re waiting for. The shape this world is in means we’re lost if he’s not coming again.
No, we’re not wrong to sing carols, hang wreaths, or attend parties with our family and friends. But when we sit sipping eggnog after dinner in the soft glow of Christmas tree lights; when we feast our eyes on the neighbor’s shimmering yard or the twinkle in a child’s eyes as she opens a gift; when we fill ourselves with rich food and delicious drinks at a holiday party, at some point we believers must remind ourselves that this holiday ambience is not a distraction from the brutality of real life and it’s not a chance to forget the world’s troubles for a little while.
Instead we’ll see in those pockets of light and joy nothing less than the only bright hope this troubled world has. We’ll remind ourselves that the darkness still swirls all around—but we’ll celebrate Advent and Christmas precisely because that is so and not despite it.
We’ll recall that a light shines in the darkness—a light no darkness, no apocalypse, no warfare, no falling meteors, and no holocaust can prevent from shining. So we’ll let our holiday lights shine, never forgetting Whose light it finally is and why this raw world so badly needs to see it.