I grew up in a small Midwestern town with my grandparents living just across the street. On Christmas morning, we would have to wait at the end of the hallway until they made it across the street. It was grueling. We knew that they would not come over until he shaved and she finished whatever she had in the oven. It seemed endless.
The church year begins in anticipation. That anticipation is very much reflected all around us. Lights are going up, shopping is well under way and the social gatherings are happening.
Yes, there is a great deal of anticipation; what we are anticipating is not quite as clear. No, this will not be a typical, Christian kvetch about the secularization of Christmas or the elevation of materialism. Frankly, I enjoy the lights, and the gatherings, and the food, and the giving, and receiving of gifts.
Last September I saw a car with a magnet that had a stable on it and read, "Keep Christ in Christmas." I get the point but, and don't take this the wrong way, it seems a little hostile.
It seems a little "I do Christmas the right way and you don't." If that is what it means to keep Christ in Christmas, count me out.
Part of the problem is that Christmas has become a dominant cultural event. It is a big deal to those who have no use for religion the rest of the year. Our economy depends on it. There is a great deal of anticipation but I think the question is: What are you waiting for?
Is Christmas merely the commemoration of a celebrity birth long ago? Is it a sanitized, Hallmark card worthy pretty baby (usually white) looking chubby cheeked and messianic event? Or is Christmas a foreshadowing of a horrific judgment day when a select few will find they've made the grade while billions of the rest of us suffer eternal torment? What exactly does it mean to keep Christ in Christmas?
The church year begins with Advent, a word that means "presence." The Hebrew word is Immanuel; "God with us." What we are waiting for is neither a birthday party nor a second coming; it is both of those things and still more.
In his chilling book "Night," Nobel prize winning author Elie Wiesel tells of his experience as a boy prisoner in Auschwitz. Having already endured unspeakable cruelty, he writes of being forced to watch the execution of several prisoners, including a child.
Because the boy was so small, his weight did not break his neck and prolonged his suffering in a way that made even some of the most hardened guards flinch.
Behind him, he heard a man ask, "Where is God now?" Within him he heard a voice answer, "Here He is - He is hanging here on this gallows." God with us, especially those who suffer.
What are we waiting for? We are waiting to commemorate a birth that came to mean that God entered into our humanity in a decisive and eternal way, and we are waiting for God's kingdom, where all are fed and cared for and where the needs of the "least of these" are met.
And here is the best thing: while we wait, there is much to do to make that happen.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.