For me, Christmas has always been a happy season and Christmas itself a happy day. It was a combination of faith and family that made it so special. I grew up on Air Force bases, so those Christmases when we returned home to Florida to be with extended family made Christmas even better.
Christmas just gets to me. As my daughter used to say, “It kind of hits you in the feels.” Maybe you feel that way too.
Growing up, we had several traditions around Christmas. We had Christmas Eve church services. On Christmas morning, my sisters and I had to wait before we could enter the room with the gifts. My parents arranged the stockings and the gifts under the tree as we waited. They then had a camera ready to capture the moment we entered the room. Through the years, we have a lot of photos of disheveled, pajama-wearing Fullerton children reacting to what bridal photographers now call the “first look.” We then lingered as a family to play with toys, eat candy, have a meal together, and spend the rest of the day together as a family.
I love hearing people describe their Christmas traditions of church, tree trimming, decorating, baking, parties, and family gatherings. I also love hearing what people grew up doing and they still do as adults. That is the nostalgia of Christmas.
I don’t bake, but I shop, decorate, and enjoy the traditions. In the midst of all of those traditions are moments that are way beyond nostalgia for me. Behind and above all are moments of genuine wonder at what happened that led to this season. God, who is spirit and does not have a body like we do, became flesh and blood. Incarnation. God chose to become what he was not before: one of us. That is big.
O Magnum Mysterium
Last Sunday, Cile and I had a day of Christmas musicals. Our own church performed a dozen songs with narration, orchestra, dance, multimedia, and choir. The symbol of a rose was used to tell of the unspeakable love behind God becoming flesh and blood.
Sunday night, we went to hear the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and several youth choirs sing a collection of mostly sacred songs. One in particular was called O Magnum Mysterium. The Latin text translated: “O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manager! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord, Jesus Christ. Allelujah.”
It’s that. The Magnum Mysterium. The great mystery of the baby lying in the manger, who is the eternal God made flesh and blood, that is so incredible.
One of the Apollo astronauts once described the scientific feat that it took to take that “one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind.” He described in detail the work to get spaceships to the moon and back. He concluded that what amazed him even more, what was far more incredible than the fact that man set foot on the moon was the fact that God set foot on this earth. O Magnum Mysterium!
I’m on a mission to try to recover that mystery at Christmas, but it is hard to break through the mental clutter of the season. We are so frantic it is often hard to see what matters most.
For some, the issue is the pain of the season. For those missing loved ones or thinking back on sorrows of the past, this season is not all happiness and sugar plum fairies. For others, it is the pace of this season, increased financial pressure, and the fact that at Christmas we face once again whatever nuttiness lies within our family that make this a dark season.
Deeper still is the reality of why God became flesh in the first place. In what Christians now read as prophecy about the spiritual condition that led to the Incarnation, the prophet Isaiah taught that the people were living “in darkness.” Their lives were being lived without the favor of God. On them, the prophet said, a “great light” would come.
A great light did come.
That light we first meet is the infant child of Mary and Joseph. At Christmas, as early church leader Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “darkness decreases, light increases and night is driven back again…. the black night of sin, which had reached its height by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day stopped in its course.”
That spiritual darkness is still real. People still live in ways that push God aside and do not have the favor of God. Hostility, indifference to suffering, abuse of personal powers, addictions, sexual sin, and greed are pervasive. What is God’s answer to that darkness? Light. Radiant, powerful light. “On them a light has come.” To them, to us, Jesus has come to decrease the darkness. The black night of sin is stopped in its course.
A different Christmas
Voices in our culture cry out, “Put Christ back into Christmas” as an effort to beat back the commercialism of the season. That is a noble effort. Those voices are trying to recover something that feels removed from culture. The “put Christ back into Christmas” movement, however, always strikes me as odd. Christ never left Christmas. Christ is in the very name CHRISTmas. Even the shorthand Xmas has Christ in the very name since it begins with the Greek letter chi (noted by an X) and is shorthand for the Greek word for Christ. That is to say Christ is in, has always been in, and will always be the whole reason for Christmas. What we need is to remember that.
Maybe this year can be different. Maybe the mystery of God becoming flesh can occupy more of your thoughts. Maybe the feeling, the thing that gets you most, can be remembering the sacred. As Augustine, the fourth century bishop of the church once wrote, that “this day is sacred not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of He who is the invisible Creator of the sun.”
Maybe this year, instead of getting hung up on whether retailers say, “Merry Christmas,” we can savor within ourselves how the Incarnation is a sacred, holy, purposeful, and beautiful mystery and let that be the thing that compels us most.
May it be so for you.
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