A memory from childhood: I am five years old and helping my mother make Christmas cookies. She is doing most of the work, mixing and rolling out the dough. I am wielding the cookie cutter. As I do so, I sing, "Joy to the world, the Lord has come."

"No," my mother says. "That's not right. The words are `the Lord is come,' not `the Lord has come.'" I am puzzled. Isn't Christmas about something that happened a long time ago? Why "is come" and not "has come"? Why the present tense?

Christmas is certainly about the past. We remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus some 2,000 years ago. We hear the stories of Mary's virginal conception and Joseph's puzzlement, their journey to Bethlehem where Jesus is born in a stable, the angels singing in the night sky to the shepherds, the special star guiding the wise men to the place of Jesus' birth, and King Herod's slaughter of infants in and near Bethlehem in his effort to destroy the one born as a rival king.

But to focus on the past is to miss the central meaning of Christmas. In the decades since that long-ago conversation with my mother, I have begun to appreciate Christmas in the present tense. Advent and Christmas, I now realize, are about the coming of Christ in the present.

Sometimes we find ourselves focusing on whether Jesus' birth stories are historically factual. Was Jesus really born of a virgin? Was there really a special astronomical phenomenon at the time of his birth? Did wise men bearing gifts really come to the place of his birth?

For some Christians, whether or not these stories are factually accurate is crucial. In their minds, the stakes are high: the truth of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus. But this debate puts the emphasis in the wrong place. For the truth of these stories is not dependent on their historical accuracy. Rather, these stories are "poetry plus, and not science minus," to echo a Swedish proverb. As "poetry plus," they use the language of poetry, and yet they are more than poetry in that they also make a truth claim. At the same time, the language of these stories is not inferior to the language of factuality because it says more than such language can.

As such, they speak to us in the present, using archetypal symbols that address our deepest needs and longings. They speak of the human condition and its remedy, both then and now, for us as individuals and societies.

Central among these symbols are the images of darkness and light, night and dawn. Darkness and night are evocative images of the human condition: at night, we can't see and easily become lost. Moreover, at night, in the dark, we feel alone and cold. We yearn for the coming of the light, for the dawn.

The symbolism works perfectly in the northern hemisphere where the nights are longest, darkest and coldest in the weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas. It is no accident that many traditions have festivals of light at this time of the year: in Judaism, Hanukkah; in ancient Rome, the feast of Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birth of the sun"; in the far north of Scandinavia, the Christianized festival of St. Lucia, "the saint of light."

Christmas is thus about the coming of the light. Jesus is the dayspring from on high and the light of the world. As John's gospel puts it, "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." In the light, we can see. Christmas is about our need, and our yearning for, enlightenment.

Biblical texts for this season also use the closely related images of being asleep and waking up. Romans 13, the text used in churches on the first Sunday in Advent reads, "It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep." Matthew 24 adds, "Be awake, stay awake."

As an image of the human condition, "sleep" is suggestive. Ordinary consciousness is often like being asleep. We pass our days less than wide awake, entranced by the collective consciousness of our culture, living in a state of mass hypnosis. Christmas is about our yearning for awakening. Words from a favorite Advent hymn, echoing language from Isaiah, express this image perfectly:

Wake, awake, for night is flying; The watchmen on the heights are crying; Awake Jerusalem at last.

And yet Advent and Christmas are not just about our individual enlightenment and awakening, but also about the world itself. They are about "the dream of God," a phrase I owe to the title of a book by Verna Dozier.

God's dream is a world of peace and justice. The text from Isaiah for the first Sunday in Advent sounds the theme: the nations "shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore." The instruments of war will become instruments of peace.

In the Christmas stories, Mary's hymn (the Magnificat) is about Jesus as one who brings justice: "He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty." The angels sing about Jesus as one who will bring "peace on earth."

The dream of God is the Kingdom of God--what life would be like on earth if God were king, and the Herods and Caesars of this world were not. Jesus' own message is the coming of the Kingdom of God. Herod seeks to destroy him, as later Pilate does. Both fail. Yet the world is still under the rule of Herod and Caesar.

O come O come Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear.

As Christians sing these words, the past becomes present. We are Israel, captive, in bondage. We are Israel, mourning in our exile. We yearn for the coming of Emmanuel, which means "God with us," whose presence delivers us from bondage and brings our exile to an end.

So also Christmas becomes present in the words of the much beloved "O Little Town of Bethlehem," written a thousand years later in the 19th century. The first verse, all in the present tense, uses the images of sleep and light and longing:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The final verse speaks of the birth of Christ as an event that happens within us today, in the present:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

As the great preacher and teacher Meister Eckhart put it in the 13th century, Christmas is about the birth of Christ within us.

And finally, I return to the hymn with which I began. "Joy to the world" not only proclaims that "the Lord is come." It also speaks of Jesus as king, evoking the dream of God: "Let earth receive her king!" The king is to live within us: "Let every heart prepare him room." The result is the rejoicing of all creation:

And heaven and nature sing, And heaven and nature sing, And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

Advent and Christmas are thus not primarily about the past--they are about the present and the future. The language of Christ entering in, being born within us, and of us preparing a room in our hearts, point to this time of the year as a season of preparation for a birth within us. That birth will be the light in our darkness, the waking from our sleep, the coming of the dawn, the source of our enlightenment and awakening.

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