For several years we struggled with the season of Christmas. It wasn’t only the creeping commercialisation brought decorations and carols into stores earlier and earlier each year. It was also the flagrant excess that we saw played out in lives of people around us: the over-eating and the ever increasing amount of plastic stuff that managed to accumulate in our house at the end of each year. Christmas seemed to encourage all kinds of waste.
That was until a few years ago, when we started to observe Advent. December had been the month of frantic parties and visits to shopping malls, the month when our time felt the scarcest, but Advent taught us the habits of patient watching, waiting, and hoping. It reminded us that our times are in the hands of the one who will make all things new.
Advent teaches us to long for the appearing of the Kingdom of God; it trains our heart to long for the second coming of Christ by looking at his first. It is his first coming that Christmas celebrates, a foretaste of the feast that will come. It is a celebration of the great news that God has not abandoned his creation to sin and death. The one who made the world and holds it together becomes a weak, vulnerable, human. This is the wonder of the incarnation – that all the fullness of God should dwell in this man. As Irenaeus wrote in the second century:
“He was born by his own created order which he himself bears.”
Out of this great news that God is with us, Christmas brings three alternatives to consumption and accumulation that run riot at this time of year.
Firstly, Christmas reminds us that basic stance of Christians is one of thankfulness.
According to St Paul, it was a lack of thankfulness for God’s good creation which disordered our love in the first place (Rom 1.21). But in response to God’s overwhelming generosity in sending more than we could ever need or imagine, Christians give thanks. Christmas is a festival comprised of twelve days that are designed to embed this habit. The generosity, often times abundant and lavish, is meant to provoke in us thankfulness to God for his abundant and lavish generosity in sending his own son for our salvation. Christmas declares that there is a deep and wonderful connection between God’s work in salvation, and his work in creation. This provides the ground to not only marvel at God’s action, but to give and receive at Christmas with thanksgiving. The strong temptation for us has been to receive Christmas presents with grumpiness. But following God’s lead, we are able give and receive with contentment and gratitude:
“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.” (1 Tim 4.4-5)
Thankfulness is the great antidote to the discontent that leads to accumulation, consumption, and self-indulgence. Thankfulness is the key to celebrating Christmas with joy and hope.
Secondly, Christmas is never more than a foretaste of the feast that is to come.
Living in Australia, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of imagining that we have “made it” during Christmas time. The days are long, the weather is fine, and the crisp blue of the sky and the sea is charged with the golden haze of summer. It’s a dream. But for all its talk of peace on earth, Christmas can ever only anticipate the celebration that is to come. In 1626, John Donne preached that:
“The whole life of Christ was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha (where he was crucified) even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as his cross at last.”
Throughout our Christmas feasting we are reminded that Christ came into the world to deal with its brokenness. The Twelve Days of Christmas, the Christmas season between Christmas Day and Epiphany, contain reminders of this. The second day of Christmas coincides with the day set aside by the Church’s calendar to commemorate St Stephen, the first martyr. The fourth day of Christmas recalls the massacre of the children in Bethlehem by King Herod. The celebration of world peace is curtailed by the knowledge that Jesus came to a world that preferred darkness over light. It doesn’t end the feast, but preserves us from a theology of glory: we feast with eyes set to the future. Until that day, the rule of the Prince of Peace is still contested in this world.
Thirdly, what we see in Christmas are the kinds of settled habits and practices that are to adorn the Christian Church. Christmas gives us a new take on power, and the way we relate to each other, because Jesus came into the world humbling himself. Though he was rich, he became poor. Though he was a king, he served. Though he was the greatest, he made himself the servant of all. According to Timothy Keller:
“This is a complete reversal of the world’s way of thinking, which values power, recognition, wealth, and status. The gospel, then, creates a new kind of servant community, with people who live out an entirely alternate way of being human. Racial and class superiority, accrual of money and power at the expense of others, yearning for popularity and recognition—all are marks of living in the world. They represent the opposite of the gospel mindset”
In celebrating the great truth that God is with us, the Christmas season is designed to fit people for the coming kingdom. We grow in contentment and gratitude, even though the liturgies of the world teach us to desire more and more for the sake of accumulation and consumption. We are being trained to hope and long for the day when the Prince of Peace will reign uncontested, when God will be all in all. And we give and serve one another cheerfully, humbly, patiently, in the power of the one who did this for us, so that we might have everything.
Over the coming days you’ll find all three elements present in The Christmas Project. This will take a shape in a variety of ways, including:
- Scriptural passages for the twelve days of Christmas that you may like to use to supplement your devotional life.
- Remarkable pieces of writing and visual art that will cause you to pause and reflect on this season.
- Prayers, hymns, and songs of praise designed for this season.
- Practical advice on liturgies you could implement in your home life, and craft, and food you could use in your celebration at Christmas.