Christmas – the muddle and the magic

Maybe Christmas was a great idea when it was first invented, but today it’s a monumental muddle.

It’s a strange mix of ancient and modern, like finding Jesus in a nativity scene alongside Santa Claus in a Coca-Cola suit, and a sacred Christian holiday being celebrated in much the same manner as the heathen festival Christians pinched it from originally.

It’s an odd jumble of opposites, too. Giving increases for worthy causes, but so does spending on useless junk. ‘Tis the season for pleasing others, but also the biggest excuse all year for bloating oneself to bursting point. It tickles heart strings while straining purse strings; it keeps the economy growing while burying people in debt, and it catches you humming those familiar songs while wishing the “silly season” was over. And who is it really all about, Jesus or Santa, our kids or the child of God?

The sacred and the secular are so intertwined nowadays it’s a wonder Christians don’t separate themselves from Christmas all together. On the other hand, Christmas still magically transforms entire communities into nicer, kinder, gentler places for a season. It’s an amazing phenomenon seeing people with no interest in God suddenly acting all warm and fuzzy and not feeling the least bit embarrassed about a Christian concoction full of bizarre rituals dragging them out in huge numbers in the middle of winter every year. In a modern culture like ours it’s hard to explain.

Unless, that is, the prophecy in Isaiah 9:7 really did kick in when Jesus was born, because that would certainly explain it. “Of the increase of God’s kingdom and peace there is no end,” the prophecy states, and the thriving of Christmas is remarkable proof of it. Even with the politically correct brigade trying to bury Christmas in meaningless terms like a “festive season of giving,” Christmas as a Christian holiday keeps on happening and it still packs a punch in the peace and goodwill department. It can still melt the anger of hardened criminals, stop the bullets flying between deadly enemies, and for a moment or two it even unites Christians.

Christmas is a powerful influence in our world, and while it remains that way it offers just the hope we need that what began with Jesus is true, that peace really is on its way. It doesn’t seem possible the rest of the year, but at Christmas-time it does, because something happens in December that doesn’t happen at any other time. The atmosphere changes; a truce descends upon the land and we discover the pleasure all over again of giving, chatting with strangers, helping the unfortunate, resolving conflicts, and even going to church.

For a few brief moments every year the elements of peace are in place and we get a glimpse of what’s possible, of a better, kinder world, of God’s world not ours. Oh, it’s all still a monumental muddle, yes, but in amongst the muddle there’s a hint of magic, of something else going on that reaches beyond human invention, of God himself reassuring his weary children that peace and goodwill are not only possible, they’re guaranteed.

And without that little taste of magic, where would we be? What hope does our world offer otherwise to a single Mother up to her eyebrows in debt and despair, or to a man who hates his job, hates where he lives, hates what’s happening to his kids, hates getting older and fatter and knows he’s stuck in a rat hole ‘til he dies?

Well, there isn’t any hope, is there, either for them or for millions like them, living out their dull, boring, routine lives without much of anything to look forward to each day but more of the same.

But along comes Christmas again, and with it a ray of hope that this life isn’t all there is, and maybe something wonderful really did begin when Jesus was born. The evidence is there all right, of something incredible happening every year that ties in exactly with what God said would happen with the birth of his Son.

Muddle or magic, call it what you will, Christmas is still an amazing time of year. It’s not only a peek into what’s possible, it’s also a glimpse of another world in the making and of a God who is real and true to his word.


My Christmas wish list for Jesus

If I got the chance to sit on Jesus’ knee, like children get to sit on Santa’s knee and tell him what they want for Christmas, what would I tell Jesus I want from him? It’s not such a far-fetched thought either, because Jesus himself said in John 15:7, “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”

Imagine a child’s reaction if Santa Claus said that. But that’s exactly the idea being promoted by those who line their kids up for a chance to sit on Santa’s knee, that Santa is actually there to do just that, give a child whatever he wants.

But where did such an idea come from? It has no connection to the original Santa Claus, St. Nicholas of Myra, who entered the history books as a good man for giving three bags of gold to a needy family, but somehow St. Nicholas has morphed into a godlike Santa Claus being lifted up as “good” for indulging children’s totally selfish wants.

But didn’t Jesus say we could ask him for whatever we want as well, in John 14:14? So wasn’t Jesus being a Santa Claus too?

But the reason Jesus said we could ask him for what we want is not so he can be Santa Claus indulging our selfish desires, it’s to “bring glory to the Father” (verse 13) by making God visible to people for who he really is (verses 10-11). And it’s Jesus’ greatest wish and desire to expand that work he began through us.

The obvious question then is: Well, is that what I want too? Do I wish for Jesus to give me whatever it takes to make God visible in me to people as well?

Well, why wouldn’t I want that, and especially in a world in which the god that’s being made most visible at Christmas time is Santa Claus, who exists only to promote and encourage children to get what they want for themselves, creating yet another generation of children who think the world revolves around them.

Jesus, however, came as God in human form to show us what the real God is like by living a life of total unselfishness, and then said he would create many more people like him who could live the same unselfish lives too. And isn’t that what our world needs now more than anything? It needs unselfish people, not more Santa-fed children expecting everyone to bow to their wants.

It makes my Christmas wish list for Jesus a fairly simple one, therefore, because if it’s my greatest wish to live a life like his he guarantees he will give me whatever I need to make it possible.

The glad, mad and sad of Christmas

The birth of Jesus changed the world forever, Christmas being just one proof of it. Before Jesus came there was no such thing as Christmas, which isn’t surprising, because there was nothing to celebrate. For thousands of years the world careened from one violent, destructive empire to the next, and people’s lives were ruled by an endless stream of weird gods and goddesses, every one of which was the product of human fear and imagination. The only nation that had any understanding of God and his plan was constantly being sucked into the vortex of the culture, and by the time Jesus arrived it was nothing more than a puppet to the Romans, and no example to the world of what God was like or what God would do for those who trusted him.

The world should be glad, therefore, that Jesus was born, because he defeated the powers responsible for that mess and he planted the seed of a new world. It quickly spread too, and became so noticeable and so different that Christmas was created to celebrate the difference and the cause of it. That difference is still being experienced today too, in the “glad” part of Christmas that celebrates the good and lovely things of human life on this planet – family, children, laughs, surprises, and of course, food glorious food. If only the glad parts of Christmas could stay that way all year.

But the world is mad too, and it’s infected Christmas with its madness. Mesmorized and hypnotized by money and the power it has to buy things, the world carelessly risks financial collapse as debt increases, and feeding that debt is the mad frenzy of buying stuff at Christmas time. It’s difficult even catching a breath between one mad day of sales bargains and another. And unfortunately it’s the mad parts of Christmas that are becoming the norm all year.

Which brings us to the “sad” of Christmas, in its loss of innocence. The simple, gentle Christmas of old has been hijacked by profit-obsessed corporations and high pressure advertising. There’s no escape from their blatant greed and ugliness, and how guilty they make us feel if we don’t sign on to the entire Christmas package. And poor old Grandma on a pension trying to find a gift she can afford that her grandkids aren’t embarrassed by. And pity those working in retail too, who may get a breather on Christmas Day for time with their family, but that’s it. It’s sad.

But somehow Christmas lives on, despite the sadness and the madness, because what Jesus’ birth began will never die, the gladness of Christmas being the proof of it.

Jesus’ birth – the starting point for God becoming real to us

When we feel like the world is crushing us with its endless obligations and so much time spent with so little to show for it, it is easy for depression and frustration to kick in. I mean, what’s the purpose of it all? And if you’re a Christian it can feel even worse, because it seems like nothing is being accomplished and what must God think of us?

Well, we know what God thinks of us, because in the birth of Jesus he put himself into our skin to feel what we feel. And it worked, because he was in tears too, just like us, when the pressures and frustrations of life were crushing him (Hebrews 5:7). We can rest assured, then, that he doesn’t tut-tut at our despair and the depressed moods we get into. Instead, he deeply feels for us.

And does that then become the starting point for God feeling more real to us, when it dawns on us that what we’re going through is as real to him as it is to us? And that’s why he “is able to deal gently” with us when we’re “ignorant and going astray,” Hebrews 5:2, “since he himself is subject to weakness.”

But that’s only the starting point, isn’t it? – because we still need to feel that he understands, right? I know in Scripture that Christ promises to rescue us from despair – just like he rescued Paul from his despair in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 – but do those promises feel real personally?

I need them to feel real, though, because it’s enormously frustrating and downright depressing when I’m not feeling that good, I can’t help out with all the needs at home and I’m constantly having to change plans and cancel things when I’m feeling lousy. Living feels so futile when you can’t do much and you have to watch others having to fill in for you. And their attempts at being cheerful to keep your spirits up only make things worse too, because they only remind you of how miserable you must be to live with.

Perhaps it’s to make Jesus’ birth become real for them too, though, because in their frustration and depression at not being able to help you, they need God to be just as real for them. And this is exactly the occasion for God to become real, because Jesus was born to become our living High Priest, and he lives to intercede for us, so every frustrating and depressing episode in our lives is just the opportunity he needs to prove he’s real. And the only way we can find that out personally is – to trust him and see.

Is there a better way of celebrating Christmas?

Christmas in its true origin and meaning is about God being with us in the person of Jesus to break us free from our ridiculous, empty-headed, humanity-draining idols. It’s about a human being who lived the life of God’s world in our world to show us what works instead of the nonsense we’ve created. And there’s probably no more effective and visible illustration of that than the way we celebrate Christmas.

On the one hand, Christmas has its good side. It nibbles round what God created us for, to live and practice the ways of heaven on earth. It’s a valiant attempt at self-giving love, which is at the heart of who God is and how he lives. It tries to create a little light in the darkness by grabbing the one time all year when it’s possible to break free from the daily grind to get together, revive relationships, and enjoy the beauty of family. And for many people it’s lovely. They love buying gifts, love seeing the children’s eyes gleam as they unwrap presents, love cooking up a storm, love the buzz of a house full of relatives, and love the warm fuzzy feelings Christmas creates.

But admit it: It is exhausting. We’ve created a monster that instead of freeing us from our idols has enslaved us to more of them. We must buy presents. We must wow the children. We must make Santa Claus magical. We must make the Christmas meal a work of art. We must do all these things or what will people think if we don’t? It also requires massive planning for large families, as to who goes where and when, and it risks all sorts of offence if some in the family feel cheated of the Christmas they had imagined. Gifts are a nightmare too: Who should you buy gifts for? And what do you give to someone who has everything? But anyone daring to say, “I’ve had enough of this malarkey, it’s driving me nuts,” is in for a verbal bashing and family shame.

Christmas was never meant to be this way, but we’ve painted ourselves into a corner and we’re stuck with it. We’re stuck with obligated giving, stuck with the rush to buy more stuff nobody needs, stuck with having to please children by feeding their selfishness, stuck with the stress and exhaustion of it all.

Is there a better way of celebrating Christmas, then? No, not while we’re stuck with idolizing rituals and customs that have no attachment whatsoever to why Jesus was born. Jesus was born and died to break the back of our cultural idols, not increase them.

Is Christmas required?

But if we all stopped celebrating Christmas the economy would collapse, a store manager told me, and that would cause massive hardship for many families. So despite the crass commercialism of Christmas, and despite the growing pile of plastic junk in the Pacific Ocean, and despite children being bored with most of their Christmas gifts only hours after receiving them, it seems we’re stuck with Christmas, like it or not.

But is it required? And while staring out the window wondering what my answer to that question would be, the story of Nebuchadnezzar and his golden statue in the book of Daniel came to mind. According to my Bible translation the king’s statue was a real attention grabber at 90 feet high and 9 feet wide, the height of an eight story building.

When it was completed Nebuchadnezzar summoned every official in the kingdom to the dedication, at which a “herald loudly proclaimed” in Daniel 3:4, that “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither (etc.) and all kinds of music, you must all fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.”

Music marked the moment when everybody fell into line and lay prostrate before the statue, which is enlightening, because music does the same to us in November every year. Stores all over the country start playing Christmas carols and Frosty the Snowman over their music systems, and people of every language all over the nation automatically fall into line with the Christmas ritual.

And even though we know the music is designed by stores and corporations to get us all laying prostrate before the Christmas idol in order to make gobs of money for themselves, the music dulls resistance. It worked for Nebuchadnezzar, and it works just as well today.

But it didn’t work on everyone in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. Three men did not fall down and worship the king’s golden statue, because in their minds it was just a god of human making (verse 18), like Christmas is today. The king turned a bright shade of purple in his rage (verse 13) and ordered the men to be thrown into a blazing furnace that was so hot it killed the men who threw them in, just like some families really turn the heat up on those who decide they’ve had enough of Christmas and head off to Cuba instead.

But maybe that’s what’s happening to more people, that as Christmas reaches beyond the realm of sanity it no longer becomes a requirement that must be obeyed.

Walking the tightrope, and on which side of it do we fall?

Christmas is a classic example of the tightrope we Christians have to walk in this world. And we can fall off on either side.

On one side of the tightrope is condemning Christmas for all its obvious faults and ironies, like making gift giving an obligation, or chopping down perfectly healthy trees, or going through the usual exhausting rituals for a few days pleasure, and, of course, its total disconnect in most people’s minds with Jesus’ birth. On the other side of the tightrope is condoning Christmas and everything to do with it, because it’s “all about the kids” and getting together as families, and for Christians it’s a way of introducing kids to Jesus using Christmas icons and rituals as illustrations.

Well, condemning doesn’t help, because it confirms people’s impression that Christians think everything in this world is wrong, and only what Christians believe is right. But condoning doesn’t help either, because it confirms the impression that Christians are scared they won’t be liked and accepted if they don’t run along with everyone else. So Christians are arrogant if they condemn, and cowards if they condone.

Halloween too is a tightrope Christians have to walk. Should Halloween be condemned for making light of evil, or should it be condoned as just another day of harmless fun for the kids, making it easy for Christian kids to join in too? And Remembrance Day as well: Should it be condemned for ignoring the propaganda that drove good men to kill good men and Christian to kill Christian, or should it be condoned and even celebrated for war’s selfless sacrifice of life?

On which side of the tightrope do we fall on these things? But if we do fall on one side it’s going to upset people on the other side, so is there a middle ground, a narrow tightrope between the two sides?

Yes, there is, according to Peter, who lived in a world similar to ours that wanted to blot Christianity out, which faced Christians back then with difficult choices too. Peter’s advice to Christians in such a world was simply to “have an explanation ready for the hope you’ve got” (1 Peter 3:15). That’s the tightrope we walk, that everything about us is driven by hope. Whether we do or don’t participate in Christmas, Halloween or Remembrance Day, therefore, our explanation for our actions remains the same, that we live in hope of a world that either expands on the good of these days, or remedies the bad in them. And the reason the expansion or remedies are possible is because Christ promised them, and he’s now in a position to make sure they happen.