Growing up as a child in England, Christmas was the highlight of my year. Out came the Advent calendar with its little windows to open each day, with some sort of picture, message or treat on offer. Out came the boxes of ageing decorations, followed by a sliced off fir for the Christmas tree and dangling all sorts of odds and ends from its branches.
It was a tradition we followed year after year, always the same, and I never questioned why we did it, or what all the rituals meant. And even though I grew up in a Christian home and went to church every week as a child, none of what we did at Christmas meant anything more than an exciting, look-forward-to time of getting gifts and eating the best meal all year.
We sang carols, and I remember vaguely of being something in a nativity play at school, but none of what we did ever made Jesus real or personal to me. And then I hit teenage and began to lose interest in Christmas. I even stomped out of a family Christmas dinner in a snit, because Christmas was all such a “put on” to me. We all had to pretend to be happier than usual, and be thankful for gifts we didn’t like, and decorate the tree with frilly nonsense, etc.
So for all that tradition and growing up in church, Jesus meant little to nothing to me. I had no idea why Jesus was born or what difference it made. At age eighteen I gave up on Christmas all together, and never attempted to celebrate it with anyone for the next thirty-five years or more. I was glad of the rest at Christmas, and not having to join the frenzy of gift-giving, parent hopping, Christmas parties, and eating sugary junk.
When grandchildren turned up I tried joining in with the typical festivities, but it all felt so empty. Gifts and wrapping paper were scattered all over the floor, food was gulped down in twenty minutes, and then in overfed stupor we gradually melted into a heap of sleepy bodies until it was time to go home. And that was Christmas, having taken up the best part of an entire month preparing for it, and in five hours or so it was all over, and then up early next day for more frenzied bargain shopping, or back to work.
I yearned for something meaningful. And one day, about ten years ago, it came. It was in a song about Simeon and his reaction to seeing Mary carrying the eight day old Jesus into the temple. Simeon cried out in Luke 2:30-32, “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel,” a quote from Isaiah 49:6. So this was a promise Simeon had looked forward to seeing fulfilled and here it was – in his mind – being fulfilled in that baby in Mary’s arms.
Questions raged in my mind. What was this “salvation” he saw in this tiny baby, for instance? And how could it be seen by Jews and Gentiles alike? And since I’m a Gentile too, can I see this salvation as well? Could it actually become real and personal to me too?
Fortunately, Simeon came to my rescue because he’d also partly quoted from Isaiah 42:6-7, that “I (God) will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” And when Jesus later read this same promise from Isaiah 61:1-2 he made it clear that the ‘you’ in Isaiah 42 was him. The hope for Jew and Gentile alike, then, would be these promises being visibly answered in him.
For Jews and Gentiles (like myself), therefore, these were three clear promises that must happen because of Jesus’ birth. The three promises mentioned were: 1) The blind will see, 2) Prisoners will be set free, and 3) Darkness will be turned to light. So did Jesus being born make those promises happen for the Jews, first of all?
Yes, they did. The Jews witnessed with their own eyes the healing of helplessly crippled people and madmen being released from their demons. A man who’d been blind from birth was healed too. The walls of his restricted world suddenly expanded. The darkness he’d only seen since birth was now filled with light – exactly what Isaiah and Simeon had said would happen. But did it happen to Gentiles too? And that part I really wanted to know, because I’m a Gentile.
Well, in Acts 26:15-18, Jesus himself said he’d do the same for us Gentiles, when he recruited Paul and told him, “’I am Jesus….I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.” Jesus himself now was promising the same three things to the Gentiles that were promised to the Jews: opening eyes, freeing us from evil, and turning darkness into light.
So, what was I “blind” to that now I see? It’s that everything I need to know about God is in Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:6). It’s not in Christmas; it’s in him. And what evil have I been freed from? It’s from traditions that teach nothing about Jesus, like most of what Christmas is about today. And what darkness has been turned into light for me? It’s been the dawning in my mind that if I was alone on a desert island without any Christmas celebration being possible I still have Jesus close to me and in me, and that’s all I need.
Now I know the source of “life and godliness,” and the “divine nature” that makes it possible for me to “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:3-4). And it all began to happen for me when Christ became the highlight of my year. If only Christmas could make him the highlight too, then.