Updated: Mar 7, 2020
It's March, and I'm thinking about Christmas.
Specifically, I'm thinking about how glad I am that it isn't Christmas, and how much I prefer Lent to Advent. I feel a sense of lightness about me since Ash Wednesday last week, despite the fact that I and two people close to me in ministry have lost loved ones this month. The last couple of weeks we have been spent supporting one another in fellowship and prayer, crying, taking walks, processing, remembering. My friend Dalia and I attended Ash Wednesday service together, and she picked up her father's ashes that day. Ashes to ashes and love to love.
And through it all, Jesus has been a sweet, real presence among us, so alongside grief has been deep joy.
If these losses had occurred at Christmas, I think it would have been different. Struggle and sorrow don't seem to have a place in our cultural practice of Christmas, which is partly why, many psychologists believe, so many people struggle with depression during the winter holidays.
Where Christmas tries to offer non-stop merriment, covering sadness or emptiness with tinsel and presents and gatherings, Lent embraces loss, sadness, and even death. So I prefer Lent because it is honest. This life is full of loss. I struggle with my own sins and those of others around me. I find peace in accepting that reality.
I am also going to die, like everyone else, but my soul is going to keep living. I look that in the face at Lent, feel the full force and fear of it, and then lay down in peace at the Lamb's feet. Christ has made a way for me and I'm grateful.
Because Christmas points me to the pleasures of this present word, to stay spiritually focused during the season is harder for me than any other time of the year. Christmas in America is about doing more and wanting more. There's more to do than I can get done (no matter how I try to pare back), and more good food, fun and events than I can actually enjoy. And though I try to focus on waiting for the arrival of the baby Christ who came to offer me an eternal home, all of culture at Christmas is making this our home, trying to bring joy and merriment through material pleasures and celebrations.
Lent is about less, letting go of something temporal in order to make space for more of eternal God. While I cannot tell you what I got for Christmas a year ago, I can tell you what I gave up for Lent and what God gave me in return: gifts of endurance, character and revelation, the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
This year, I gave up sweets for Lent, because sugar has become my go-to quick hit for comfort, especially since I haven't had an alcoholic beverage for almost two years. When I stop the mindless Girl Scout Cookie and brownie consumption, my emotions come to the forefront, turning me toward the state of my heart. I'm finding when I take a moment to notice how I actually feel -- lonely, sad, scared, bored, stressed -- I'm learning to turn toward the Father of all comfort instead (2 Corinthians 1:4) and finding Him to be a present help. Really. He really offers comfort if I take the time to ask.
I also took Instagram and Facebook off my phone, because I recognize that, 42-year-old adult that I am, I go to these apps for relief of anxiety and a hit of approval compulsively throughout the day. I kept them off for about three days. It turns out I really can't work without them (the tedious process of posting for my ministry on my laptop was making it more of a focus rather than less). But I put them on my third screen of apps instead of the first. I've developed the discipline of looking at it once in the morning and once at night -- most of the time. In the middle, I have found that the simple prayer, "God show me your approval through Christ," is changing my heart. I'm also more present to the people around me. And more aware of my need for grace when I slip up and start swiping at a traffic stop.
The season of Advent is supposed to culminate is a deep sense of the arrival of Christ. But -- can I be really honest? -- it really gets overshadowed by the high-pressure family gathering in which we all try to bring the right gifts, the right food, and hope nobody has the stomach flu. And if they do, that they stayed home to protect us from it. I collapse into December 26 like a marathon runner whose quads have turned to jelly five feet past the finish line. Where as Easter is easy. Put on something pastel, and go to church. Sing your heart out, and feel close to Jesus. Then go eat ham and take a nap.
Every year, when Christmas is over, I have to cut everything back: spending, celebrating, calories. I have to wean off sugar and stress, and put all the decorations away with naught to look forward to but weeks of winter and bare trees. I have to retrain myself to love "less," even though "more" was too much.
But after Easter, as the bulbs bloom and trees sprout celadon leaves, I find myself rooted in these spiritual realities: That the things of heaven are more fulfilling than those of earth; that while over-indulgence leads to shame, discipline and self-denial lead to joy; that stillness allows for a better knowledge of God; and that living with less makes the simple pleasures of life more richly fulfilling.
As I add back slowly what I'd deprived myself of, I feel more grateful for the taste of dark chocolate and more grateful still that it's been put back in it's proper place in my heart. I don't collapse across the finish line of Easter; I step into spring like it's new life, pointing me to an even better life to come.