We repeatedly read the same Bible passages at Christmas. How can we keep repetition from diminishing our sense of wonder in the incarnation? It starts by slowing down.
How do we keep Christ in Christmas, even as we embrace all the fun of the season? There is a secret to it—but it isn’t all that secret. In fact, it starts with how we approach every day.
I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with Christmas, or at least a lot of the trappings surrounding it. The struggle to create a “perfect” Christmas, the whole Christmas-karma nonsense… But one of the things I desperately struggle with is our lack of understanding of what Christmas is really all about.
Christmas—the incarnation—is a declaration of war.1
And yet, more often than not, we shy away from this understanding, don’t we? We joyfully embrace what happened that day and all the details of the story:
The Son born of a virgin, the shepherds attending Him, the angels singing, all of it.
But we forget to talk about why. Why did Jesus come to be Emmanuel—”God with us”? Why was it necessary for Him to come at all?
God With Us to Wage War on Sin
Of course, we know the answer. We know why Jesus came. The baby didn’t stay a baby; He became a man who would die in our place, perfectly satisfying the wages of sin. We know the Easter story… and yet we don’t seem to connect the it to our Christmas celebrations.
We need to connect the dots. We need to remember, as some have said, that Jesus was born in the shadow of the cross. To see, as Simeon did, who this baby truly was and rejoice as he did:
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
Simeon doesn’t rejoice simply because he’s seen the baby Jesus—he rejoices because he’s seen God’s salvation. He’s held Him in his hands. That’s pretty incredible, isn’t it?
Can you imagine what our Christmas celebrations would look like if we had that same sense of awe?
Remembering Christmas as More than Jesus’ Birthday
This year, remember Christmas not just as “Jesus’ birthday” as some of us tell our kids, but as the day God waged war on sin and death. For when we do, it changes the celebration. It doesn’t remove the joy or the excitement. It doesn’t turn what should be thrilling into a funeral procession. If anything, remembering this only deepens our excitement.
For Christmas is the day God waged war—and it’s a war He wins.
- With a hat tip to Matt Smethurst for articulating it so well.
There’s something that’s easy to lose sight of at Christmas time: the very purpose of Jesus coming into the world, and the gift he gives to us, something Spurgeon reminded me of as I read Christ’s Incarnation recently:
Jesus Christ did not come into the world to help you to forget your sin. He has not come to furnish you with a cloak with which to cover it. He has not appeared that He may so strengthen your minds (as some men would have you believe,) that you may learn to laugh at your iniquities, and defy the consequences thereof. For no such reason has the Son of God descended from Heaven to earth. He has come, not to lull you into a false peace, not to whisper consolation which would turn out to be delusive in the end, but to give you a real deliverance from sin by putting it away, and so to bring you a true peace in which you may safely rejoice.[1. Christ’s Incarnation, 81.]
That is a great gift. Jesus didn’t come to make you a better person, but a new one. He brings true peace, peace everlasting. It began with his incarnation. It continued through his life, death, and resurrection. It continues still as his Spirit resides in us as we wait for his return. And even in the new creation, when his kingdom has come in all its fullness, there will be no end. There will only be the fullness of peace, the peace of Christ, which we receive by faith in the God who entered into the world as a baby.
Christmas is the time of year when we hear lots of conflicting messages about why we celebrate Christmas at all. Some call it a special time of year, though the “why” isn’t really explored. Others go on the offense, reminding everyone that Jesus is the reason for the season. And then there are the folks who really just want to keep their head down, take a nap, and get through the holidays.[1. I’m one of these.]
I know for a lot of people the Christmas season brings up a great deal of interpersonal drama: fears of family conflict, disappointing everyone asking for that last minute donation, and whether or not we’ve really been good enough to deserve a present from Santa this year.[2. We don’t do Santa in our house.]
A few years ago, I wrote a series of Christmas posts exploring how Jesus died to save us from all these things. How the gospel matters to us, especially during “the most wonderful time of the year.”
- Jesus died to save you from Christmas Karma
- Jesus died to save you from guilt-driven generosity
- Jesus died to save you from the perfect Christmas
Rereading these after a number of years has been very helpful to me because it’s so easy to fall into these traps. To teach our kids that behavior is the ultimate standard. That I should let guilt determine my giving habits. That I have to compete with others on how to have the happiest Christmas. But it’s all bunk. Jesus died to save me from all that. He died to save you from all that, too. I hope these three posts from an older series will be a helpful encouragement as you prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus with your loved ones.
We don’t have a lot of Christmas traditions in the Armstrong home, but there are a few (and not just the one to two week window for how long we have a tree up). Our traditions tend to center around books we like to read around the holidays. I’ll usually wind up reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by myself, and we cycle in a few different family options. Last year, we introduced the family to Scott James’ excellent little devotional The Expected One. Every day was a beautiful time of exploring the build-up to the birth of Jesus. When we were done, my son immediately demanded that we start over again.
Recently, we received a lovely gift in the mail: The Littlest Watchman, James’ brand-new book for children (illustrated by Geraldine Rodríguez). The story is the tale of a little boy named Benjamin, whose family have an important job: watching a stump for a sign of the arrival of a promised King.
Through this imaginary tale of waiting and anticipation, James offers a re-telling of the promise that began in the garden—that God would send a rescuer for his people, a promise reiterated again and again in different ways: a son of Eve. Abraham’s offspring. A son of David. The shoot of Jesse.
But I think where this book succeeds most, aside from the joy it brought my son—
—He has insisted on reading it again and again since it arrived, by the way.
Aside from that joy, where James really succeeds is giving a voice to the lingering doubt that can creep in. After all, the promise had been made and restated for centuries. And before Christ finally arrived the first time, it had been 400 years since God had sent a prophet. Maybe the promise wasn’t really true. Maybe it was all pretend. Maybe…
As another of our favorite children’s book reminds us, waiting is not easy.
The Littlest Watchman is an excellent addition to our family’s library of children’s literature, and one well-worth reading in the lead-up to Christmas. It is sure to be a blessing to your family.
Title: The Littlest Watchman
Author: Scott James
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2017)
It’s our first Christmas in America. Despite what some might expect, we’re not heading back to our homeland this weekend to celebrate with friends and family. We’re hanging out here in the Nashville area, celebrating as the five of us.
This is kind of exciting for us, but I’ll admit it’s also a bit odd. For years, we’ve had a pretty consistent routine:
- Christmas Eve is our family celebration
- Christmas Day is with my parents and sister
- Somewhere between Boxing Day and New Years Eve we celebrate with Emily’s parents
This year, obviously, we’re rethinking the routine. There’s no travel time involved. We’re just… here.
So how are we going to do things differently this year?
We’re going to church on Christmas Eve. We’ve not always been able to do this, as our previous church didn’t have Christmas Eve services until last year (the joys of not having a facility hold it in). Our congregation has a gathering on Saturday afternoon, so it’ll be great to join everyone to worship Jesus together with our eyes on the incarnation.
We’re having a low-key family dinner. Seriously. No turkey and trimmings, this time around. Chicken strips (homemade, of course), something with sweet potatoes, and a green vegetable are the menu for the day.
We might let the kids watch a Christmas movie. Assuming I can find one that isn’t wildly inappropriate (Christmas Vacation), or featuring a violent sociopath (Home Alone).
We’re planning Skype calls with family. Just because we’re not physically present, doesn’t mean we won’t in touch.
We’re still splitting up gifts over two days. This year, we lived many parents’ dream and purchased gifts on behalf of all the grandparents. As a result, there are quite a few packages surrounding our tiny tree. Because we want the kids to enjoy what they receive and not experience present fatigue, we’re splitting it up with about half the gifts being opened on Christmas Eve, and the remainder to be opened Christmas Day.
This is also how we make everyone in the Christmas Eve vs Christmas Day debate unhappy: we do both.
We’ll include at least one bit of Canadiana. Because it isn’t Christmas without Bob and Doug McKenzie.
So, that’s our first Canadian family Christmas in America. Low-key, simple, but hopefully a lot of fun.
Familiarity is a double-edged sword. Familiarity can bring with it a sense of comfort, of happiness and contentment. Think of a favorite shirt or pair of slippers, maybe even a good book. Familiarity, in this sense, can be a very good thing. But it can also have a downside in that the exciting can seem mundane.
It’s easy to feel that way at Christmastime. We know the stories. We know the Christmas productions and all the events. And it’s easy to just want it to be done and over with so we can get back to our regular lives.
I feel like that sometimes. And when I do, it’s because I need to change my perspective. I often find it when I consider the fact that the angels sang of Christ’s birth. Spurgeon said this well:
They stretched their willing wings, and gladly sped from their bright seats above, to tell the shepherds on the plain by night, the marvelous story of an Incarnate God. And mark how well they told the story, and surely you will love them! Not with the stammering tongue of him that tells a tale in which he hath no interest; nor even with the feigned interest of a man that would move the passions of others, when he feels no emotion himself; but with joy and gladness, such as angels only can know. They sang the story out, for they could not stay to tell it in heavy prose. They sang, “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”[1. From his sermon, “The First Christmas Carol.”]
The angels didn’t just speak of Jesus’ birth. They sang. There was no higher praise they could offer, no song so sweet as the one announcing that the Messiah had come. And that’s the thing I want to latch onto. It’s not just the good news being announced, but the way they announced it. The news was (and is) too good to just be spoken.
Every year around this time, we’re asked, “What do the kids want for Christmas?”
I’m glad to be asked, obviously. Our extended family has always been very kind and generous to our brood and considerate of us in preparing for the holidays. But every year, it’s challenging to get a list from the kids.
This year, one of the girls wanted a book from a series she enjoys and a Lego set. The other wanted a nature book and a new doll. The boy asked for a Transformer and a Ninja Turtles cartoon DVD. That was about it. In fact, they had a hard time coming up with this much. And they were thrilled when I suggested adding pajamas. (Yes, my kids are weird. And awesome.)
I wish I could say that this is because their little hearts are so full of the love of Christ that, recognizing him as their greatest treasure, they don’t feel they need anything else. That’s probably how you’d expect a post with a title like this one to go, right? But the truth is a bit less spiritual than that, though just as simple. The fact is, they’re just pretty reasonable kids. They don’t ask for a lot because they don’t really want a lot most of the time.
(Except to play the Wild Kratts games on the PBS Kids website. All. The. Time.)
That’s something I love about them, and something I want to continue to nurture in them. But how? Here are a couple ideas to give some sense of what we’re trying to do. The first is super-practical, the other is more ideological.
We use the “four somethings” filter. In general, we use the “something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read” method. We encourage books, but we don’t shy away from toys. We work together to look at what’s needed, along with thinking about fun things, too. These kinds of categories help all of us make wise decisions when we’re purchasing or asking for something. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been saved from a poor decision by running through them in a store.)
We try to model a “less is more” mindset. Emily and I don’t really buy a ton of stuff for ourselves, or even for one another. We don’t ask for gifts, though I will often get her a little something like some chocolate or a nice coffee beverage). This wasn’t what I was like as a kid, of course. I created many wildly unrealistic Christmas wishlists, and thought there was a legitimate chance of getting most of what was on them! (I didn’t understand how money worked. But as I gradually matured, and the Holy Spirit refined my attitude toward “stuff”, I stopped caring about getting gifts. So today, what Emily and I do is we try to give one another some space to just be by ourselves. For me, that usually means going to a coffee shop with a book or occasionally going to the movies alone. For Emily, it usually means going to a coffee shop. But since they don’t see us getting hyped up about gifts and whatnot, it only makes sense that they would follow suit. Although, they get super-psyched about going to the thrift store because their mom loves going there.
This is probably not terribly mind-blowing stuff, and no doubt more experienced parents would have some great advice to share (and if you do, please share it!). But for the moment this seems to work.
Merry Christmas from my family to yours, friends. Enjoy a restful and joyous celebration of our Savior’s birth—a Savior who is friend to all who come to him:
No aristocratic Christ have I to commend to you, but the Saviour of the people, the Friend of publicans and sinners. Jesus is the true “poor man’s Friend;” He is “a Witness to the people, a Leader and Commander to the people.” Oh, that each one of us might truly say, “Unto me is Jesus born”! If I truly believe in Him, Christ is born unto me, and I may be as sure of it as if an angel announced it personally to me, since the Scripture assures me that, if I believe in Jesus, He is mine, and I am His, and through union with Him I become a partaker in His everlasting life, and in all that He has.[1. C. H. Spurgeon, Christ’s Incarnation: The Foundation of Christianity (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 32.]