Since our first son was born we’ve started thinking about what kind of traditions we want to have for our family, especially around the Christmas season. We’ve kept some from each of our families, and added some of our own, and overall we’ve wanted to set a certain tone for Christmas that will teach our children about the miracle that is Emmanuel: God with us, and to actually reflect this truth in how we celebrate.
Our celebrations for Christmas begin on December 1st, like the traditional Catholic season of Advent, we spend 24 days leading up to Christmas with an eager anticipation to welcome this idea of the Creator coming down to us as an infant.
This year we chose to forgo a big, beautiful Christmas tree and instead found a spindly branch after a windstorm to make a Jesse Tree: a tangible representation of the gnarly lineage of humanity that Jesus broke into, joining himself to the first human failures (Adam and Eve), a drunkard (Noah), a liar (Jacob) a pariah widow (Tamar), a prostitute (Rahab), a foreigner (Ruth) a murderer and adulterer (David), and a poor carpenter and his pregnant wife (Joseph and Mary). Every night we read a story from the Old and New Testament and see how the promise of Jesus began at the very beginning, then we hang a circle on our naked little branch and see the promises of God fill up human history.
We mix up our Advent activities through the month: memorizing Isaiah 9:6-7 while we make and knead peppermint play-dough; talking about how Jesus is the light of the world as we look at Christmas lights shining brightly in the dark; seeing the character of Jesus in Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe during our movie night with popcorn and cocoa (and copious amounts of whipped cream); picking up trash on the road near our house; wrapping gifts for our loved ones, praying for each one of them as we fold paper over a token of our love for them; playing games together; baking cookies for our neighbors and hand-delivering them and learning more about these people who live right next door; singing lots and lots of Christmas carols; hiding Mary and Joseph figures so our three-year-old can help them travel from “Egypt” to the manger scene in “Bethlehem”; stringing popcorn while that same three-year-old asks pointed questions about the Trinity; and ultimately telling the story of heaven breaking into human darkness. We tell and retell this old story that is ever relevant so that it is printed on our hearts, filling us with hope. The only hope that doesn’t disappoint.
And when our hearts are filled with this hope of Jesus, this God who came down to us, the way we look at Christmas changes. Because when we see this God-man given to us, we who belong on no “nice” list, then our hearts are filled with him, and his generosity flows from our own hands in ways that are much bigger than just gifts to our loved ones.
So, instead of spending outlandish amounts of money on ourselves and our own small family, we can give generously to everyone. To the refugee who is now in our land, or to the homeless family who’s Christmas request is a pair of warm socks or “something to share with my sister”. It’s amazing how much I have missed the point in Christmases past, how easy it is to be swept up into the “spirit” of Christmas while this idea of Emmanuel stays only in my peripheral. But God is faithful in reminding us who he is and how truly extravagant the gift of Christmas is. Often he reminds me through the voice of my child who gladly saves up a quarter every day from our Advent calendar to give safe drinking water to a child in another country, and rearranges the manger scene with everyone surrounding Jesus and announces, “Look mommy, everyone is worshipping Jesus!”
Truly where our treasure is, that is where our heart will be found. And our hearts are perhaps most illuminated in our Christmas celebrations.
Is my treasure in nostalgia? Or family? Or stuff?
Or is my treasure in the babe in the manger who grew to be a man who has given us everything, flaying our hearts open before us and revealing the depth of our need for him and our deep satisfaction with him.
This doesn’t leave us with some kind of bland, puritanical Christmas, on the contrary, it means we ought to be the most joyful at Christmastime, regardless of how wealthy or poor our circumstance, because Christmas reminds us that everything we have (or don’t have) is garbage when compared to the great treasure wrapped in swaddling clothes, who later left a pile of grave clothes in an empty tomb.
If our treasure is in Christ then our lives, our hearts, our money, our words, and our time will reflect that. We will be marked by generosity, not because we are “good” people, or because of some nebulous “Christmas spirit”, but because we are all “bad” people who were given the free gift of Jesus and because we know the Spirit and he is at work in us. Because the truth is this: the greatest treasure isn’t under our Christmas tree or gathered around our table feasting together. He was in a manger, then a cross, now seated at the right hand of the Father, and will return with authority and justice. Loving him means we will love beyond those we are familiar with or who love us in return. When we are filled with him, our hands joyfully extend to those we see in need, because God is good and his goodness overflows out of those who know him.
So, let us celebrate, feast, opening our gifts with hearts of gratitude, but also giving, extravagantly, and standing in awe before the miracle of the manger, because our God gave to us the most beautiful, precious gift when we deserved it least. If we can remember this, then our Christmas will be more than festive, it will be full of the greatest hope we will ever know, it will be full of him.
Let no one say: God has blessed me with money and possessions, and then live as if he and his God were alone in the world.
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
-1 John 3:16-18