December is upon us. Everywhere we turn, the sights, sounds, and smells of the season fill our senses. It’s the time of year when shopping malls, families, and churches direct their attention toward one event: the day we call Christmas.
During my years as a pastor, I encountered this season with a strange blend of thoughts and emotions. I felt delight mingled with discomfort, excitement mixed with exhaustion, anticipation tempered by anxiety.
As I have experienced Christmas over the years, I have also come to recognize at least three distinct perspectives at play. I identify them as the party, personal, and spiritual perspectives.
Party finds its place in the glitz and glamor of the season. It is the part of Christmas that everyone has in common: the part that is evident in the crowded streets of our cities and the mobs that fill the malls in search of that perfect gift. It is the mixture of “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells.” It plays out in office parties and mistletoe. Its influence is widespread; an uptick or downturn in December retail sales can affect the entire North American economic system. It’s the part of Christmas that some bemoan but most engage with enthusiasm.
This party perspective seems to shape much of our understanding and certainly most of our culture as we reflect on what Christmas has become. While we may wish for something deeper, the reality is that even the most devout among us are impacted by and engaged in the party.
The personal perspective during the Christmas season contrasts sharply with party. It might also be identified as the emotional or nostalgic side of Christmas, and is often characterized by family gatherings where food is enjoyed, gifts are exchanged, and children or grandchildren take center stage. The aroma of well-prepared food recalls memories of simpler, better times. We exchange cards and notes with old friends. Those who are no longer with us are often foremost on our minds.
This personal engagement with Christmas most often forms our perceptions of what Christmas is and should be. While sometimes this perspective is overly sentimental, it’s often the one that touches us most deeply.
However, there is one other perspective that deserves our attention as we reflect on the holiday. It is the element of Christmas often caught in the phrase “the reason for the season.” The spiritual side of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world. This single historical event set the stage for and is the center of everything that Christmas has become.
As Christ-followers, we celebrate the birth of Jesus in the light of his crucifixion and resurrection. Christmas is not first of all a party or even personal—it is a time of praise and thanksgiving. In his unconditional love, God sent his one and only Son to live among us. As John articulated so well, Jesus came to dwell among us; he pitched his tent in our neighborhood. This act of incarnation is what gives meaning to our lives today and through eternity.
The parties and celebrations certainly have their place. They add excitement and joy, and the emotions that well up in our hearts as we gather with family and friends ought to be relished. These are gifts that flow from God’s greatest gift: his Son.
But it is my hope that each of you will experience anew the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the joy of the world. It is my prayer that you will know the incredible gift of grace. May the wind of the Holy Spirit blow away the fog of commercialism and sentimentalism so that you may see Christmas in the bright radiance of God’s love.