Christmas is a time of remembrance, of nostalgia—for the Christmases of our past, and for that Bethlehem instance of which nativity renderings, Biblical accounts and Sandi Patty songs are a continued reminder.
For me, Christmas is this evolving storehouse of memories that includes my grandmother’s pecan pie, Christmas Eve candlelight services followed by steak sandwiches, sprawling family games of Trivial Pursuit and Rook, my mom playing “O Holy Night” on the violin, bowl games on TV, family trips to the movies, bowling on Christmas morning (an annual tradition), Evie’s “Come On Ring Those Bells” on vinyl, and an underlying ambiance of John Hughes-flavored suburban Chicago Christmas (Home Alone, Christmas Vacation).
Of course the list could go on and on. We could all reminisce for hours (and, over the next few days, probably will) about the memories we’ve shared over the years. And that’s a good thing.
One of the wonderful things about Christmas is that—in spite of the way we’ve cluttered it up and made it a frenzied, high-stress bonanza of party-hopping and excessive shopping—it’s still ultimately a holiday that glories in just being. For a few days we all gather with friends and family and enjoy things: pie, eggnog, presents, music, glittering ornaments, cute babies, football, funny stories and nostalgia. There are few other times in life when we collectively pause to celebrate life, in fellowship with our fellow human, thankful for the beauties and blessings we enjoy.
And then, a week later on New Year’s Eve—before we launch into the doing of the new year and its accompanying resolutions—our celebration of being climaxes with a day devoted to remembrance: The highs and lows of the year gone by, the friends made and loves lost, the tragedies and triumphs and trips we’ve taken here and there. We toast to it all, sipping up the sweet bubbly of days gone by and another year lived. We are present, still breathing, still tasting and seeing the world’s goodness where we can find it.
Oh, grace! The Incarnation.
How else could we truly enjoy the gifts and surprises of this world apart from Christ’s Incarnation, taking on flesh and walking on the same dirt as we, drinking the same water, smelling those same roses? The Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is the very thing that gives us permission to celebrate in the way we do: Through things like peppermint mochas, It’s a Wonderful Life, or a concert performance of Handel’s Messiah.
The goodness of the world—the “all is not lost,” salvageable beauty of it—is legitimated in the God-made-flesh moment of Christmas. In that epoch of history, the climax of so many centuries of hopes and fears and expectations, heaven literally came down to earth and took up residence within it. A new kingdom began—physical, tangible, unexpected. Christmas is the celebration of life as it can be lived in the light of that very real hope, in the knowledge that, though we will have trouble, we should take heart because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33).
Sometimes it frustrates me when churches skip so quickly over the Incarnation or act like it’s merely a feel-good stepping stone to the ultimate apotheosis of creation: The cross. I don’t really like going to Christmas Eve services where a few Christmas songs are followed by a song about the cross and the Lord’s Supper. Why are we in such a rush to get to Easter? Not that Easter isn’t monumentally significant. But isn’t Christmas majestic and mysterious enough to warrant its own set-aside time of worship and meditation?
It seems to me that Christmas need not do much more than be a celebration of creation in order to be a significant memorial to the event it symbolizes. When this planet welcomed Christ, it welcomed redemption, purpose and light. The world changed in that moment, and things that seemed pointless before were suddenly imbued with meaning.
And so at Christmas, it’s fitting that we celebrate by simply enjoying that meaningful creation. Looking back at the blessings we’ve been given, looking forward to the second Advent of the Redeemer Christ, but also glorying in the goodness of the moment: A fire in the fireplace, Grandma’s pies in the oven, wrapped presents under the tree and nothing to do but enjoy, enjoy, enjoy it all.