Substance over shadow // Matt Chandler

[An excerpt from the Seasons Guide] Download yours for free here.

It’s the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we’re already full throttle into the holiday season. The lights are already up, Christmas music is playing, people are talking about gift ideas, and the commercials have started. It’s on. And some of us didn’t even have the decency to wait for Thanksgiving to be over before we coated every surface in tinsel and fake snow. The “Christmas season” seems to start a little earlier every year.

As a culture, we’re drawn to the whole holiday thing, and I’m no exception to that. I’m not full-on Clark Griswold, but we’ll decorate our house, put up a tree and hang stockings. The Chandlers love all the trappings of Christmas. But despite all the decorations and parties, not everyone enjoys the season. People get the “Christmas blues,” finding the holidays to be a time when they’re particularly vulnerable to depression. And then there’s the “Christmas hangover.” It’s not the one caused by too much eggnog; it’s the one that hits after the presents are opened, the stockings are empty, and the meal is over. We find ourselves thinking, “That’s it?”

The Christmas blues and the Christmas hangover both happen when unbridled expectations slam into reality. They happen any time we build up an expectation for something that it can’t possibly meet. We have plenty of help building these expectations—radio, television, Pinterest and people’s perfectly filtered Instagram posts all feed our inflated idea of what the Christmas holiday can deliver. They paint the picture that our loneliness will be turned into joy and that the gift we want so badly will ultimately satisfy.

These expectations can’t possibly be met. Sometimes the holidays don’t bring families together. Or, they bring families together just to let a grenade go off among them. Sometimes you get everything you want, and still that nagging, empty feeling is there. Sometimes the season is terribly lonely because you have lost a loved one. Unbridled expectations slam into reality. 

Separating Substance from Shadow. In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Paul is saying to the churches in Colossae that feasts and festivals are good, but they’re just a shadow of the greater truth of Christ. They’re not the substance; He is. You can’t get your arms around a shadow. You can’t be comforted by a shadow. It takes the substance to do that.

This doesn’t mean that we are not allowed to enjoy the shadow. We don’t need to rail against stockings and lights. We just need to recognize that those things are a shadow. By all means, have fun with the shadow, but ultimately, go after the substance.

If we go through this holiday season and aren’t made more aware of Jesus, then we have failed our own hearts, we’ve failed our own families, and ultimately there’s nothing left except to be disappointed.

This is why, as a church, we take time each year to illuminate the substance of the Christmas season by observing Advent. Advent gives us the chance to press hard into the fact that God has made promises, God has kept those promises, and Christ has put on flesh and dwelt among us. We want to get our minds, our hearts and our arms around the substance, not at the expense of the shadow, but so that we learn to find our joy in what’s casting the shadow in the first place.

Change Your Focus. Set your heart and mind on the substance, not the shadow. By turning your attention onto the Word Made Flesh, you’ll be able to handle the weight of this season. By fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, all of a sudden the stress of the holidays lessens because our focus is where it should be.

You won’t go into the kind of debt that you normally do because you’ll realize everything you’re buying is of temporal significance. You won’t feel the pressure to buy affection from your kids because you’ll feel the weight of imparting to them what’s actually glorious.

You’ll begin to understand that our longing and our eager anticipation for Christmas morning is what we should feel—but do not feel—for Christ and His return. You’ll begin to get drawn into the substance that will never disappoint like the shadow does.

When we focus our hearts on the fulfilled expectation of Christ’s first coming and the glorious expectation of His second coming, the “Christmas blues” and the “Christmas hangover” begin to lose their power over us. This holiday season, ask the Holy Spirit to help you learn to keep your eyes fixed on Christ. By all means, put up the tree, play the carols, and eat the big meal. But don’t set your hope on those things. Enjoy the shadow, but find satisfaction in the substance.