I love Christmas. But I hate how easily Christmas can deform us. What do I mean?
I really love Christmas. I sing Christmas songs in July. Our family seems to have a thousand traditions jammed into December. We are one of those families who wear matching pajamas on Christmas Eve. I don’t think I’ve ever had the thought, “Well, that was too many Christmas carols in worship.” I love the smells, the bells, the sweaters, the peppermint everything…I could go on.
But I find myself often disturbed by who we — Christians — become around this time of year. Children throwing tantrums because they didn’t get the toy they wanted. Adults throwing tantrums because they didn’t get…the toy they wanted. Debt skyrocketing. Patience running thin. Depression rates increase. Family fights are the norm. It’s the hap-happiest season of all…!
Why? Partly because we’ve replaced the shared longing for Christ in Advent with the materialistic lusts of Christmas. More than that, our rhythms and idols are heightened during holy days (aka holidays). In a culture with extravagant wealth when compared historically and globally, we tend to leverage that wealth toward meeting our deepest needs of security, safety, meaning, and belonging rather than looking to Christ. This time of year can easily become the heightened worship of materialism, and so it should be no surprise that at this time of year we get more of materialism’s fruits: hurry, selfishness, isolation, and loneliness.
Now to the key question: how do we fight this? How do we recenter our longing for Christ and His desires in a way that brings change in us for the better this Advent? The answer lies not just in a surrender of the heart but also in a change of practice. The apostle Paul reminds us that grace propels us to walk into good works (Ephesians 2:10). So what do we do?
Here are three practices that the Holy Spirit can use to help reorient the Christmas holy day into being a day that makes us more whole.
#1 Read the Christmas Story from the Bible and Talk about It.
When Christmas morning rolls around, we can tell ourselves that we’ve outsourced the telling of the Christmas story to a movie or a previous sermon at some point in December so that we feel like we’ve checked that box.
What’s Christmas morning about? Is it the shredding away of the wrapping paper to find our dreams met in the items around us? Or is it centering on the Christ child once again?
What if we put away the phones, the apps, the slideshows, and just get out the good ol’ Bible. Grab coffee and open the book. Gather around it with others or alone and read of God come to us.
Don’t rush it. Sit in it. Ask questions of this critical moment in history. Ask God to give you a deeper appreciation or a more rich understanding.
Remind yourself that God is the greatest gift given to humankind, and allow Him to relativize how much the gifts under the tree are to satisfy our deepest desires.
Now, I hear the pushback. Gabe, that may be fine if you’re single or married without kids. But you don’t know my kids. You’re right. I’ve got three kids under the age of 8 as I write this. I know the questions that go through our minds as parents: What if they start to have a distaste for the Bible because I require them to sit through a reading and engage? What if it ruins the day? What if I lose my temper? Can’t we just relax on this day? Geez?!
Materialism wants us to focus on instant gratification and avoid discipline. The gospel calls us to gracious parenting with our eyes set on who the children are becoming. I want us to call our children to know the Scriptures and know the Jesus who is at the center of all this. And just because they don’t look as engaged at first when reading the Christmas story as they do when they open presents, that doesn’t mean they won’t be more grateful for those times 10 years from now.
Think about what you want your kids to say to their kids? What you want your spouse to say about you at your funeral? What if they said, “They always brought us back to God’s word. They didn’t want me to miss the greatest gift of all. I wasn’t always grateful for it, but they wouldn’t let me give my heart to stuff that wouldn’t fill my heart.” Can you imagine?
So very practically, here are some of the traditional texts to engage with on Christmas:
- Matthew 1:18-25. This is the passage of how the angel came to Joseph to tell him to stay with Mary even though she was pregnant with a child that wasn’t his.
- Luke 1:26-38. This is the passage where the angel comes to Mary and tells her she is to have a child.
- Luke 2:1-21. This is the classic passage of how Jesus was born and the shepherds came around the manger.
- Matthew 2. This is also a powerful passage of the foreigners (the Magi) who came to find Jesus, and how Jesus quickly became a refugee. A powerful reminder just how similar those early situations are to today.
- Revelation 22:1-8. This is not as traditional in present day Christmas celebrations, but this text captures our advental longing for Christ’s second coming and the beauty of His coming presence.
#2 Invite Others into Your Christmas Holy Day.
We can idolize the nuclear family in western. In other cultures, extended family and even neighbors were included in holy day celebrations. Idols always destroy the vulnerable. Always. And some of the vulnerable in our culture are those who are single, whether young or older, and away from family.
It’s fascinating that at the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph weren’t alone with Jesus. The shepherds joined them because God invited them (Luke 2:16). And throughout the gospel narrative we see again and again that Jesus himself defines the most important place of belonging not as the nuclear family but those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 12:50). Now this is in no way an excuse to exclude or avoid those who are related to us in a natural way (1 Timothy 5:8), but it is to expand our boundaries of belonging and inclusion.
So on this Christmas, yes, call your grandma, but what about calling your Christian sister too? I’m not about making your Christmas day hectic, but maybe there’s one person you can reach out to who is in your life because you share Christ? Maybe they chose singleness like the apostle Paul encourages us to (1 Corinthians 7:7), or maybe singleness and isolation was a result of painful exclusion (James 1:27, 1 Corinthians 7:15). Regardless, we are made for community, and the church is to be the family of God in a very real sense. Who can you reach out to include this Christmas?
Each Christmas there is someone Allie and I invite into our home that we hear is without a community on Christmas, and it is always better because of it. We don’t make any real adjustments. We just invite them into our lives to do Christmas with us, and it makes our Christmas day more beautiful. Try it out.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t add the importance of gathering with the church community around Christmas. It’s always fascinating to me that during a holiday centered on the beauty of Christ and His body, the Sunday after Christmas is one of the least attended Sundays in the year. I get there are reasons like travel and so on, but one important step in caring for the vulnerable around the holidays is to show up at church. We need each other, and if we don’t show up there – at our worship gatherings – we leave so many feeling even more alone when we need each other the most.
#3 Be Radically Generous with Your Words.
I don’t know how many times I have read the card on their presents for my kids, but they can’t even focus because their sights are set on the toy that is yet to be revealed under the wrapping paper. With such an emphasis on stuff during Christmas, we forget that some of the most powerful forms of generosity have to do with our words toward and for one another.
I recognize you need to figure out your rhythm with your family, but what if there was a part of Christmas day – maybe it’s even after the giving and receiving of the physical gifts – where each person shares something they are grateful for about the person sitting next to them? If you are a married couple, maybe you intentionally set time aside to speak your delight over one another?
I know, I know. Some folks are giving me the “you’re crazy” look right now. That just sounds hoaky, right? But why? We need to hear this from each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We need to hear from those closest to us that they are grateful for us. That’s even more important than whatever thing is under the tree. What if this year you did that for each person with you on Christmas morning? What if this year you just modeled the way?
Let’s Become Better Together
Those are 3 practices that if we leaned into them during and around Christmas, the Holy Spirit would actually strengthen our bonds, encourage our faith, and train our mouths to anticipate Christ’s second coming.
My hope is not that everyone does these exact three things. My hope is that this has given you a more biblical imagination for what God can do in and through you this holy day. It doesn’t have to be chaotic. It doesn’t have to be deforming. Christmas can be a time to give life, to form life, and to invite more into a shared life with Christ, if we are willing to allow our practices to communicate Christ at the center of Christmas once again.