I've been a believer in Christ most of my life, and I know that "Jesus is the reason for the [Christmas] season," but every year I feel like that head knowledge has a hard time getting to my heart.
I'm so distracted and busy in December. I love to buy gifts for people, and watching all the websites of my favorite stores for good deals is like a game that I can't stop playing. Just when I think I'm done shopping — I have something for everyone on my list — my inbox chimes with new offers, and I start finding reasons that I should keep buying. Is it wrong to buy presents at Christmas? Am I taking away from the spiritual meaning of the holiday by doing all the same things that my unbelieving neighbors do? How do I keep Christ at the center with so many distractions? Is it even possible to have a Christian Christmas anymore?
It seems like every year the marketers of all things Christmas get smarter at gamifying the buying and celebrating of what used to be a fairly simple and primarily religious holiday. I've never played Candy Crush, the highly addictive mobile app that rewards you for every move but keeps you in suspense with mandatory waiting periods between levels, but it's easy to imagine the rush — I feel it every time I open my Gmail and see a new post-Black-Friday offer. But that's not all I feel. I also feel guilt and not a little conviction over my excitement about a new sweater. Because in reality, not all those gift purchases are for other people. That's how the marketers want it, you know. "You're working so hard to bring glad tidings to everyone else," they remind us, "why not a little comfort and joy for yourself? You've earned it!"
Can you hear it? It's the call to consume.
I hear it loud and strong. I can relate to your question, because, well, I wrote it. This year I've been struck again by the tension of wanting to have a meaningful Christmas season, while feeling affected by the pull of consumerism. I suspect I'm not the only one feeling torn between my desire to glorify Christ and my desire to give and have new stuff. Is it possible to overcome the consumerism that not only surrounds us, but originates in our own hearts? What should we do?
My first inclination is to overreact. To totally change the way we do Christmas — Save the presents till February! No more tree! A gluten-free December! Thankfully my racing thoughts halted at Kevin DeYoung's timely blog post, "Christian Christmas Grinches." He talked me down from the moralizing ledge.
As Christians, we have more to celebrate than anyone. We don't need to lock up Donner and Blitzen to show that Christ is preeminent. Just like Lewis didn't have to shut out Father Christmas from Narnia to make Aslan great.… There is a time for fasting in the Christian life and a time for feasting. The Old Testament teaches us that. And so does Jesus. If Western Christianity is selfish and bloated, let us be the first to say so and the first to show a more excellent way. But let us be the last to use the occasion of the incarnation for moral preening. If the disciples were to rejoice when the Bridegroom was with them, surely we can do better than to be outraged sourpusses every year when we commemorate his coming.
DeYoung reminded me of something that I love about holidays: It's good to celebrate! For many years after Steve and I were married, we'd kick off the Christmas season by pulling out a sermon we heard in 1996 and listen to our then-pastor talk about the importance of "eating of the fat." He was referring to the passage in Nehemiah where the Jews had returned to Jerusalem from captivity. They were in a state of mourning, having just heard the reading of the law. They knew how far they'd fallen. Nehemiah encouraged them, saying,
"This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, "Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved." And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them (Nehemiah 9b-12).
The problem isn't celebrating, far from it. Celebration goes with rejoicing. Celebrating is part of rest and restoration and marking milestones and building sweet memories with our loved ones. The problem is all that passes for celebration in our culture. We weary ourselves with preparations, take on credit card debt, eat too much sugar, drink too much punch, curse the makers of lights that seem to go out the minute you're hanging the last of countless strings, and call it celebration. But it's not.
The things that replenish, that last in our memories and make life sweet, require that we settle for less than Pinterest-perfect decorations and cookies. True celebration is about being in the moment with the people in your life, about resisting distractions, and lowering expectations of how much you can buy and do in one month. But more than anything, it's about staying focused on what we're celebrating and asking God for the wisdom and ability to be transformed by the One we're celebrating.
We've had years in our family where we over-emphasized "eating of the fat," neglecting the Word of Life announced at Christmas. But Steve and I have made it our goal to make the Good News the most important and defining thing about our Christmas celebrating. Jesus has come in fulfillment of millennia of promises. He came to set His people free from sin and death! As DeYoung reminded me, we of all people have the most to celebrate. There's no better antidote to Christmas excess than celebrating the Gospel: Jesus has come in flesh to dwell among us, not as judge, but as Savior of sinful people in need of rescue.
The best way we've found to keep this focus is Advent. Advent means expectation and preparation for Jesus' coming. To celebrate Advent is to set aside time each day, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, to read the prophecies and promises in the Old Testament, along with their fulfillment in the New. It's an intentional focus on baby Jesus in the manger. That's where it starts. But it doesn't end there. The reason Advent is so magnificent, and holds such power for transforming our Christmas celebration, is that it anticipates all of why Christ came — He was born to die. Observing Advent gives clarity and purpose to the Christmassy things we do, even as it transcends them, changing us in the process.
I wrote a quick overview of some of the books we've used in Decembers past to prepare our hearts for Christmas. This year we're reading the Advent book by John Piper, Good News of Great Joy. (It's available as a free PDF at DesiringGod.org.) Advent began Dec. 1 this year, but it's not too late to start preparing your heart for Christ's birth.
Piper says the purpose of the ebook is to "help you keep Jesus as the center and greatest treasure of your Advent season. The candles and candies have their place, but we want to make sure that in all the Christmas rush and hubbub, we adore Jesus above all." This is just the sort of help I need! When what's most exciting about Christmas is new stuff, I know I have a spiritual problem, and that requires a spiritual solution. I need to remind myself of my greatest need. It's not a mini-iPad. Not by far. My greatest need is forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And in Christ, my need is met.
Meditating on God's goodness and kindness and mercy; and Jesus' love and sacrifice and victory must be my daily practice if I'm to overcome the pull of the world. It's that strong. And I'm that weak. But if we abide in Christ, nothing is impossible. He tells us "apart from me you can do nothing." Nothing. That's a good word to start each morning. But don't stop there. Philippians 4:13 promises, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." I can obey God's commands not to be anxious, to trust Him for my needs, to receive what He gives as good and sufficient, and to be content whether I have much or little. This is ultra counter-cultural, especially at the height of this buying and self-satisfying season. But it will be "healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones" (Proverbs 3:5-8).
And so this is my prayer. That by God's grace, as I abide in Christ, He would make Jesus my greatest treasure, that "in everything, He might be preeminent." I pray, dear readers, as you enjoy the wonder of this time of year, that in your hearts, above all else, Jesus would be most wonderful.
By Grace Alone, CANDICE WATTERS
(This Q&A originally ran on Boundless.org in December, 2013. By God's grace, my ability to enter into celebrating Christ at Christmas has grown each Advent since then.)