God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. – Genesis 1:31
In 1916, the cover of the Saturday Evening Post contained the illustration on the left called “Mother’s Day Off.” I’m sure that those who subscribed to this magazine back in the day didn’t realize that they were receiving first edition prints of one North America’s most famous 20th century artist/illustrators; Norman Rockwell. Over the course of the next 50 years Rockwell produced numerous prints of American life, most of them depicting a clean wholesome traditional way of living. One might describe Rockwell’s illustrations as nostalgic, capturing the emotion and heart of scenes that we long for, capturing the emotions of days gone by. He creates a picture of home that people long for.
At Christmas time many people long for home. And what they long for is a Norman Rockwell ideal. At Christmas we want to sigh and remember children opening presents with wrapping paper tossed aside, large turkey dinners with Grandma’s special stuffing recipe, and even singing at church with all the traditional Christmas carols. We long for such scenes, but…but our homes include annual arguments over which family is hosting the extended gathering, uncle Norman’s one drink too many comments that makes everyone squirm and the pain of remembering people who are no longer sitting at the so-called festive table. We may feel nostalgic for home at Christmas time, but what is it that we’re truly longing for?
The home we’re longing for is a “good” creation. In fact, it could be argued that although we don’t know what heaven will look like, the best description is found in the creation account. God’s good, just, beautifully ordered world is what we all long for – a place of Shalom. Shalom writes Neal Plantinga is,
“The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. . . . In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which the natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be . . . In a shalomic state each entity would have its own integrity or structured wholeness, and each would also possess many edifying relations to other entities.”[i]
Such Shalom is more appealing than any Norman Rockwell painting.
But we’re not home now are we? If we are all longing for what is right, if we are longing for rest and shalom, then that likely means we are all too painfully aware that our current setting is not home. And that’s probably one of the greatest ironies of trying to reproduce Norman Rockwell Christmas scenes. No amount of tinsel strewn around our living room is going to make cancer disappear. One more chocolate letter and Christmas card is not going to change the bad decisions that have caused addictions in our family. The perfectly cooked turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce aren’t going to bring back the loved one that we’ve lost. Buying a plastic blow up Santa Claus from Canadian Tire is not going to eradicate aids in Africa. We may read about the perfection of the Garden of Eden, we may read about the beauty of God’s creation and we may know that it describes what home is supposed to be, but our present reality no matter how we try to dress it up at Christmas reminds us that we are not home.
This Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. In the Christian calendar, Advent marks the start of a New Year. Advent is the season of anticipation which might equally be interpreted as a season of prayer, because we’re praying and waiting upon God. The Christmas scene is far from quaint and nostalgic. The first Christmas was a tiresome journey as the result of oppressive requirements from a foreign occupied Roman rule. It was a “no more room” birth in a dirty stable. Therefore Advent is a season in which the Christmas narrative reminds us that God, through small humble beginnings, interrupts the world’s expectations of power and begins to re-establish home. To this we sing, “O’Come, O’Come, Emmanuel.”
[i] Neal Plantinga, “Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be”