Each year, I blog through the Advent Season – a time of waiting, expecting, and longing in the midst of exile. This year’s Advent Project is my way of intentionally seeking truth in this time and motivating myself to reflect. Let’s reflect together about what it means for God to be with us, and how badly we need it.
In a lot of ways, studying theology ruined Christmas for me. Once I really started to understand who Jesus was, what God’s hope for the world was, and so on and so forth, the way we celebrate Christmas and Advent always made me incredibly mad. I’ve talked about this in my other posts, but part of the truth is that these posts during the Advent season have always been an attempt by me to try to reclaim some of the “Christmas spirit”. I guess part of me has always thought that more theology would help me feel like a kid again when Christmas came around each year. So I would always try to consume some sort of theological text about incarnation or the historical-Christmas to prepare myself for the season.
A few months ago I took a class called Aesthetic Theology and Postmodern Culture. The basic premise of this class was that beauty, through art, nature, and experience, we can catch a glimpse of the divine. God is active in the world through the beautiful, through the things God created, and the things we create. Ceceilia Gonzales-Andreiu says it this way:
What is beautiful can be so most powerfully in that it wounds us and directs us to the longing our wounds reveal. In this beauty that is most fully revealed in Christ, the good and the true are woven together and made sensible, so we may want them, grasp them, inhabit them, and love them.
When I was a kid, I experienced Christmas, even if I didn’t comprehend it. Experience is the true home of the aesthetic. But even this can require a little learning. the best learning I’ve done on the matter came from Friedrich Schleiermacher, who is actually a brilliant theologian. But it wasn’t a book on theology or philosophy that taught me this. It was his small but beautiful Christmas Eve Dialogue that both taught me and showed me the beauty of the Christmas story, and the ability of art to shape theology and provide an encounter with God. The work is actually a short, fictional story about friends talking on Christmas Eve about the meaning of Christmas. Yet, even for them, it is the experience of music, decorations, and the joy of community that becomes their fullest understanding… not the academic content of their conversation. They realize in their celebration that there is an intertwining of faith and beauty, as one character explains:
If something fine or gratifying is presented to us at a time when we are most inwardly conscious of the greatest and finest thing of all, then that consciousness will be taken up into our awareness of it. Furthermore, in relation to the glorious salvation of the world, all love takes on a greater significance, as does everything good.
All this leads me to one main point, the subtitle of this entire post: my grandma was right all along.
At the point where my grandma was no longer able to put up decorations herself, I was old enough to get paid to do so. Every year, after Thanksgiving, I would go over to her home and drag endless strands of lights, nativity scenes, angels, snowmen, and the like out from her shed and put them up. My grandma loved having the most decorated place in the neighborhood, and it brought her joy to see lights and angels during the Christmas season. It made her happy, and she believed it made others happy too.
At some point I realized that this actually meant a great deal to me too. Last Christmas I drove around with friends to see some of the best-lit houses in LA, and I truly believe that it was a spiritual activity. So this year, having read this text by Schleiermacher, and learning to find and experience God in beauty, I decided to do something I haven’t done in a few years.
Naomi and I went to Arizona for Christmas, and decorated my grandmother’s apartment. She doesn’t have a home or yard to decorate anymore, but you better believe she still has nativity sets! We spent time with her putting up the decorations and playing Uno, (if you know my grandma, you’ll understand,) and it was an amazing time for us.
I tell you all that to simply remind or suggest that Christmas is a time for beauty, and that beauty may help you find God in a new way. If you’re inclined, like me, to look to books or sermons or lectures to find God, maybe Christmas can be a season where you look in a different place. Obviously I don’t mean to say that God isn’t in those other things. Of course!
But if beautiful things are good, and God is the source of all that is good… then perhaps God can be found just as much in the beautiful experiences of our lives as in the spoken word of a preacher. We shouldn’t be afraid to feel warmth in our heart as we gaze in awe at a spectacle of lights and call that experience “God”.
Tis the season! In many places snow is falling, colored lights are draping, children are ecstatic, trees are adorned, beautiful flowers and wreathes and mistletoe abound… breathe it in! Christmas is a time to stop and smell the poinsettias!
You might just find God there.