After weeks of anticipation, the frenzy of shopping for gifts and making travel arrangements, and all the excitement of the big day, Christmas has once again come and gone. For many, Christmas’s passing is cause for major consternation. Each year, millions of people fall into depression in the weeks following Christmas and New Year’s. It seems that Christmas day inevitably fails to meet all the hopes and expectations pinned upon it year after year by so many people around the world.
The irony of it all is that this is a conundrum of our own making. We build up all sorts of expectations for Christmas day, but more often than not neglect the reason behind the celebration. This is ironic because the thing we most easily lose sight of amidst the busyness of the holiday season is the only thing—the only person—that can fulfill our hopes.
Fortunately for us, the fact that another Christmas has come and gone does not mean that we’ve missed our chance, that we are resigned to a state of depression until the next holiday. Yes, the gifts have been unwrapped and the food consumed, but we still have the opportunity with every new day to turn our attention to what matters most—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose Incarnation we celebrated (at least in theory) this past Thursday.
Here’s the reason why we can rest assured this opportunity remains open to us: The Son of God may have been born on a particular day, which we commemorate on a particular date each year, but it is not entirely accurate to describe the Incarnation as a one-time event. When Jesus was about to ascend to heaven—that is, when it seemed he was about to leave the world—he told his disciples that it was to our benefit that he should go, for he would send his Spirit upon us (Jn 16:7). The author of John’s letters reassures us, “And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us” (1 Jn 3:24). Not only that, but Jesus promised that when we eat the bread and drink the cup in memory of him, we are truly receiving him within ourselves. All of this points to the fact that the Incarnation is ongoing. Jesus is always coming into the world in each one of us.
I, for one, find this fact immensely comforting. Recognizing that the Incarnation is ongoing takes off all the pressure we tend to put on one day of the year. It frees us up to welcome God into the world and our lives on a day-to-day basis. To be sure, doing so requires more effort than stockpiling gifts once a year. Like anything worthwhile, it demands patience.
Take Mary and Joseph for example. They knew their child was to be the Son of God (Lk 1:35) and the savior of the world (Mt 1:21), yet, for the most part, he was a child like any other. As an infant, he cried and nursed. As a child, he ran and played and scraped his knees. It was only when he reached the age of 30 (or thereabouts) that Jesus began to manifest the divine power at work in him. For all the years prior, his parents had patiently watched him grow, waiting for the day when he would reveal himself to be all that he was foretold to be.
Like Mary and Joseph, we must show patience if our Advent hopes are to meet with fulfillment rather than letdown. We do not have the privilege of watching the Son of God grow from an unassuming infant into the wonder-working Messiah. However, we do enjoy the blessing of witnessing the Incarnation at work in the people around us. Where Mary and Joseph faced the challenge of seeing God in a child who depended on them to feed him and wipe his bottom, we face the challenge of seeing Christ in the people around us who are irritable and self-centered, who lie to us and let us down, who don’t behave as we think Christians ought. Jesus did not reveal himself to be God in a single day. Neither, then, should we expect Jesus to reveal himself in others all at once. The Incarnation is ongoing, and we need to have the patience to watch it unfold gradually.
God did not intend for the joy of Christmas to be limited to one day a year. It awaits us in the dawning of each new day and in every loving encounter with another person. Whether or not we experience that joy depends on our ability to see Christ in others and to have patience when his likeness is slow in emerging.