I love Christmas! I love it for so many different reasons. I love singing my favorite Christmas carols in church every Sunday. I love all the special gatherings and events, the decorations, the meals, the giving, and everything else that goes with Christmas. I look forward to Christmas months before it ever arrives, and I'll bet some of you do, too.
I especially love Christmas because it marks a special season in the church year. That season is Advent, which is observed in churches around the world during the four weeks preceding Christmas. The word "advent" comes from a Latin word that means "to come." The time of preparation during the weeks preceding Christmas is about getting ready for the coming of Christ, not only as the babe born in Bethlehem but also as the king who will one day come to fulfill his kingdom of love, justice, and hope. One of the ways the Church observes advent is by lighting special candles, which are placed together in an Advent wreath. Each candle represents an Advent theme; the first candle represents hope. We lit the candle of hope this past Sunday, because hope is at the heart of everything Advent is about.
We learn about the extraordinary events surrounding the birth of Jesus in the opening chapters of Matthew's gospel, and one key element comes when we are told that Jesus shall be called Emmanuel, which means, "God with us." What a stunning statement: God is with us! The almighty creator who reigns in holiness and majesty is with us, and he comes to be with us through Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. Matthew doesn't say it outright, but the entire narrative of Jesus' birth carries tones of hope. Hope has come because God has not abandoned us; indeed, he has come looking for us, not for what we can do for him, but because he simply wants to be with us. It's almost too good to be true.
The idea of God with us doesn't show up a lot in Matthew's gospel, but it does show up in two very important places. We've already looked at one of them in the first chapter of the gospel; the other comes at the very end. After being raised from the dead, and commissioning his followers to disciple the nations, Jesus declares, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Did you catch that? This idea of someone being "with us" bookends the whole gospel, except there is one significant change. God with us at the beginning of the gospel has become Jesus with us by the end. That is the good news of Christmas. In the person of Jesus Christ, the only God is personally and uniquely present with us. And because Jesus is with us, hope is with us.
My prayer for you this Advent season is that you will experience the presence of God in Christ in a unique and surprising way. I pray that your hope is renewed as you come to a deeper knowledge of the Christ child who is also the resurrected Lord of the cosmos and Savior of all who have faith in him. He is our hope, and he is with us. Thanks be to God.