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Advent: Christmas Eve

When we light the candles of Advent, we get in touch with the love, joy, peace, and hope, of the gospel of Jesus.


Happy Christmas!

Christmas is very much a thing at our church. You may be watching this on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, or the Sunday after Christmas, but our tradition is to gather together to sing Christmas carols and read the Christmas story by candlelight.

This year, Christmas is less sentimental and more spiritual. Less about tradition and more about the tenacity of hope.

2020 was a year for the history books. And I can’t remember a Christmas in my lifetime where I was more in touch with the emotional architecture of advent.

Advent is from a Latin word, meaning “appearing” or “coming.” At Advent, we look back to Jesus’ first coming and forward to his second coming, and we get in touch with the felt experience of living in the in-between. That mix of joy and sorrow. Of giving thanks for what God has done in Jesus; and waiting and watching for Jesus’ return to finish what he started.

So as we sing, and read, let your entire body get in touch with the tension of Advent. With the sense of living in between. We invite you to draw the attention of your heart onto Jesus.

Before we sing, turn to anyone around you – if you’re watching with your family or friends – or if you’re alone, shoot a text to somebody in your life and say Merry Christmas.

Give Thanks

We want to set aside a few minutes to give thanks. It goes without saying that 2020 has been a very difficult year. All of us are feeling grief and loss.

To those of you who have lost people you love … we are with you. To those of you who had to attend a funeral over Zoom, as one person from our church said to me last week, about the death of their grandfather from COVID, it doesn’t feel like he’s actually gone, because I wasn’t allowed to see him before he died due to COVID, and I wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral due to COVID … we are with you.

To those of you who lost a job or a business or who are out of work ... we are with you.

To those of you struggling with mental health, or anxiety, or depression … we are with you.

To those of you who are angry or sad over the tumult of our city and nation – the injustice, the violence, the culture wars, the political polarization – … we are with you.

There is so much to grieve. And yet, there is also so much to give thanks for. We are still here! We made it! Never has living through the end of a calendar year felt like such an accomplishment!

I know I’m not alone in that I’ve come face to face with my mortality during this pandemic. And just how fleeting life is. How every day is a gift and how God’s goodness permeates all of my life.

We have so much to thank God for that in a “normal” year we take for granted – a roof over our head, clothes on our body, food in our stomach, the family of God all around us, the presence of the Spirit in us, the hope of Jesus’ return. So, let’s take a few minutes speak out one thing you’re grateful for as we come to the end of the year. If you’re alone, shoot a text to someone, just type out what you are grateful for. Let us cultivate gratitude in our heart for God’s goodness.

One very practical way we express our gratitude to God is by giving. In Greek, the language of the NT, the word for gratitude and the word for gift are from the same root word; gratitude is a posture where you receive all of life as a gift. And let me say thank you – on behalf of our leaders – for your generosity to our church through this pandemic. I have been blown away, and I thank both God and you.

The Light in Darkness

What we’re about to read is a prophecy from the 8th century BC, written at a time when Israel was in a very dark place – exile – about the coming of a king and kingdom that would usher in peace not only for Israel but for the world.

(Read Isa. 9:2-12)

Do you know the origin story of the Christmas tree? We know for sure it goes back to German Christians in the 16th century. But the legend is that it goes back to Martin Luther himself – that founder of Protestant Reformation.

The story goes: One December night he was out on a walk and writing that Sunday’s sermon in his mind. When he was stuck by the beauty of the stars twinkling in the trees overhead. So he cut down a tree, took it inside his home, and put candles all over it, all to teach his six children the meaning of Advent.

The tradition caught on in Germany, but not across the world. German immigrants brought Christmas trees to Pennsylvania in the 1700’s, but Christmas was looked down on by the wider society because of it’s pagan history. In fact, in 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts made the observance of Christmas, other than a church service, a penal offence, you could be fined for “Christmas spirit.” True story.

It wasn’t until 1848 that the Christmas tree became socially acceptable in America, when newspapers ran a picture of Queen Victoria – who was a pop icon in the 19th century – and Prince Albert and the royal family, all around a Christmas tree. Then it spread to culture at large.

Even then, the first tree wasn’t put up in Rockefeller Plaza until 1931 and because the Christmas tree started with Martin Luther, the Reformer, no tree was put up in the Vatican until 1982.

But there’s a spiritual logic to the symbol of a Christmas tree, and to Dec. 25 as Christmas Day. Ancient Christians chose December 25 to celebrate Advent in the church calendar, not because Jesus was born on December 25, he most likely was not, but for a few reasons. First was to replace the Roman festival of Saturnalia due to its pagan nature. Second, because they thought that winter solstice was the best time of the year to get in touch with the heart behind Advent. That feeling of dark, cold, and winter, when everything is dormant.

The evergreen tree is symbolic in that it’s a sign of life in the dead of winter. But it’s the lights on the evergreen tree that resonate at a deep level. That feeling of light in the darkest, longest night of the year is a kind of archetypal image of Christ’s coming. And the image of Christ’s coming as light goes back to long before Martin Luther, to before the time of Christ.

We read Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming king and kingdom of God: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

(Read Matt. 4:12-17)

Jesus Is the Light

Here is the writer Matthew saying: Jesus is what Isaiah was pointing to; his coming is the light. Now, light – in Scripture and outside it – is a metaphor for illumination. As in, “Let me shine a light on that for you” or “I’m in the dark.”

Think of the feeling of fumbling around in the dark through a room. You can’t see to walk. That’s what the world was like before Jesus – fumbling in the dark for a way forward.

Humans – religions or secular, Christian or not – are meaning making machines. We can’t live without meaning. We can’t help but ask the questions of human existence:

  • Who am I?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What is the purpose of life?
  • What is goodness? How do I become a good person?
  • Does anyone love me?
  • Is the world around one of love or hate?
  • Is there hope for the future?

Without Jesus, we are grasping in the dark – the proverbial blind man and the elephant – trying to make sense of the mystery, wonder, and suffering of life. Every religion, every philosophy, and every ordinary human life is an attempt to answer the questions of human existence, or to avoid them as long as you can.

But during a global pandemic you can’t avoid them. You can’t avoid your mortality or the reality of suffering. Life is not up and to the right. And there’s a lot we don’t know – how much longer the pandemic will last, how the vaccine will work, how much socio-political tension is still to come.

Here’s what we do know: Christ has come, he has died, he has risen, and Christ will come again. The kingdom has come near. We’re living in it now. The best part of the kingdom is yet future.

Light in Scripture is more than just a metaphor for illumination. It’s also a metaphor for love, joy, peace, and hope.

That’s why winter solstice is such a great time of year for Christmas. On Dec. 25, the world is still dark, cold, and gloomy. Winter is still in full force. But from Dec. 25 on, the days are getting longer and warmer. Summer is coming, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

In the same way, Jesus’ birth was the turning point for human history. The world is still gloomy – there is evil and injustice – but summer is coming. The kingdom of God is coming. An epoch of peace and prosperity is coming. All because God was born in a cave in Bethlehem. God became a human being.

Because of Jesus’ coming, “the government will be on his shoulders.” Not mine. Not yours. Not the President’s. Jesus. Because of that, we have peace.

Jesus is the subject of the verb of human history. He is the primary agent in the healing and renewal of all things. Not me. Not you. Not politics, economics, technology, or science. All good, but Jesus is the one who has saved the world, is saving the world, and will save the world. Past, present, and future.

So when we light the candles of Advent, we get in touch with the love and joy and peace and hope of the gospel of Jesus.


Every morning, I get up early before my family for a time of prayer in stillness because once the kids are up, there is no more stillness. And this time of year, it’s dark, and I love to turn on the lights to our Christmas tree as a visual cue to tap into the light of the gospel.

So, as we light our candles, let love and joy and peace and hope rise up in your heart. Summer is coming, yes, but more importantly, Jesus is coming again. We wait and watch for his return.

John Mark Comer is the pastor for teaching and vision at Bridgetown: A Jesus Church in Portland, Oregon. He’s also the author of a new book called Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human.

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