Celebration of Christmas at the Miller house has not yet officially begun this year. For me, the celebration really begins when the tree goes up. I have two strong convictions about the Christmas tree.
1) The Christmas tree must be real. For some reason, people get offended when I say this, but “artificial trees are for artificial people.” Why would that offend? I can’t imagine. But I want Fraser Fur needles dropping on the floor and the smell of pine throughout the house. So what if it triggers allergies? Sacrifices have to be made!
2) The Christmas tree must have so many lights on it that it throws a circuit! One year, on our 7 1/2 foot tree, we had 1400 lights. Add strings of lights until the thing becomes a fire hazard, add three or four more strings, change the fuse, add one more and you are ready to go.
Oh, and by the way, none of those blinking lights or that one-color nonsense. Multicolor lights that blaze bright all the time. I’m pretty strong on this folks – no arguing!
And there are three movies that are essential to any Christmas celebration. First, A Christmas Carol – the George C. Scott version. All others fall short and pale in comparison. Patton as Scrooge – predestined for greatness. Second, you have to watch George Bailey battle Mr. Potter (Henry, not Harry) and discover that he actually has a “Wonderful Life.” Then, on Christmas Eve, you need to tune in to TBS and watch little Ralphie scheme to get his Red Ryder rifle without shooting his eye out.
Life has changed in the last few years. All three of our sons are married now and our daughter is off as Cedarville. My two sons who have given me grandchildren (the two cutest EVER) live so far away we won’t be able to see them at Christmas. But I still love Christmas. I’m looking forward to foraging through the barren shelves on Christmas Eve looking for something to give as a gift. The toys get more expensive. Family gatherings are a logistical challenge. But I still love the Christmas season and all that goes into it.
Still, the celebration of Christmas in America has taken such a strange turn. I remember my grandmother speaking wistfully of the Christmas of her youth, when her only gifts were a peppermint stick and perhaps a hand-carved wooden toy her father made. She remembered the celebration of Christmas as a time of wonder and joy – without Black Friday, credit cards or online bargains.
Things have changed. Our culture has disregarded the birth of Christ and elevated the jolly old guy in the red suit to the status of a god. We have turned Christmas from the worship of the baby in the manger to the worship of Mammon, god of money. We spend thousands of dollars in homage to the power of materialism and greed. Christmas is a bacchanalia divorced from the meaning it once had.
Even our efforts to “keep Christ in Christmas” have become odd at best. Last year, a large Southern Baptist Church sponsored the “Grinch Alert” to badger people into saying the words “Merry Christmas” whether they mean them or not. At that site, one person expressed how offended he was that Delta Airlines wished him “Happy Holidays.” Has our celebration of Christmas really been reduced to being offended when someone wishes us well but does not use the proper words to do so? Fortunately, the church had the sense not to resurrect that site this year.
Even Christians often do not realize the theological roots of the celebration of Christmas. I am afraid that many, even in the church, have failed to understand the true meaning of Christmas and have not celebrated it in a way that honors God. We need to explore the theological underpinnings of Christmas – not just what was going on in Bethlehem, but what was going on in the mind and heart of God. When we understand that, we will see more clearly how to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Three Levels of Christmas
My beloved Christmas tree serves as a great illustration of the three levels of the celebration of Christmas. Millions never get beyond level 1. Many Christians get stuck at level 2. We need to move on to Level 3 and understand “the real meaning of Christmas.”
Level 1: The Ornament Level
The ornaments hang on the outside of the tree. They give it pizzazz. They are flashy and fun and beautiful. Sometimes they are garish and crass, as well (not mine, of course). Many Americans never get beyond the Ornament Level in their celebration of Christmas. The ornament level involves trees and presents and eggnog and mistletoe – the fun, light side of Christmas. The Jolly Old Guy in the red suit is an ornament, as are Rudolph and Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and…well, you get the picture.
Christians are divided over how much of the Ornament Level of Christmas that we should celebrate. I enjoy the celebration of Christmas, but some Christians are offended by the secular side of things. Follow your own conscience on this one. What we need to realize is that while ornaments are fun, they are not all there is to the celebration of Christmas. We need to go deeper than simply enjoying the ornaments and decorations of Christmas.
Ornaments and lights do nothing if they are kept in the box. You need to have something to decorate, something to hang the ornaments on. You need a Christmas tree to display the ornaments.
Level 2: The Tree Level
Christmas is not just about myths and legends. It is a real story about the real birth of a real baby. The Tree Level is the structure on which the celebration hangs; the story of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, the historical foundation of the celebration of Christmas. Whatever kind of ornaments you like and however much of the Ornament Level you celebrate, it is crucial that we hang the ornaments on the tree.
We need to be careful to focus on Joseph and Mary and the Baby (the biblical story, not the multitudinous myths that surround that story), the shepherds and angels and wise men. They remind us that God sent His Son into this sin-kissed world to demonstrate His love. It is a powerful story.
I love the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, of George Bailey, or of little Ralphie Parker and his Red Ryder air rifle. But there is no story more powerful than the story of Jesus Christ invading this world of darkness to shine the light of God’s love and we need to keep this story front and center during our celebration. It is the tree which supports the entire celebration of Christmas.
The problem is that some people believe that taking a little time to look at a Nativity scene or remembering the details of the Christmas story is the “real Christmas.” It is not. For Christmas to be real, it must go deeper.
You see, there is a problem with my tree. When I bring it home from the store, it will be fragrant and fresh. But in a few weeks there will come a day I call “The Day of Great Evil.” My wife (I refuse to participate in such wickedness) takes the lights off the tree, puts the ornaments in the boxes and then tells me its time to carry the tree out to the Christmas tree graveyard in a stand of pines, joining the rotting remains of the Trees of Christmas Past
The problem is that my tree has been severed from its roots. It only lasts a season because it has been cut off from the source of life. That is what happens when all we focus on is a cute little baby in a romanticized manger two millennia ago.
There has to be more than that. Good news – there is!
Level 3: The Root Level
Why can’t the celebration of Christmas last into January and February? Because we have cut it from its roots. We need to explore the roots of Christmas and reattach the celebration of the season with the deep truths of God’s sovereign purposes.
The Root Level of Christmas is the theological truth and purposes behind what happened in Bethlehem. At this level, we are not so concerned with what Joseph or Mary is doing, but what God is doing. The roots of Christmas are in Heaven, not in Bethlehem or Nazareth. When we understand the activity of God, the meaning of Christmas comes alive and we come to understand how to celebrate it rightly.
As we celebrate Christmas, we need to reattach it to its roots – the gracious activity of God in this world. What are those roots? I don’t have time to explore them, but let me mention a few I think are significant.
- Christmas is WAR! It was D-day in the divine plan of redemption, as God came to confront sinful humanity, provide atonement for our sins and justification for sinners. What God planned from eternity was put into effect on Christmas. You must see the cradle in the shadow of the Cross.
- Christmas is about forgiveness. God decided not to leave us in the darkness of our sins, but to shine the light of glory on us in Jesus Christ. Not only are we forgiven, but we must forgive. Want to celebrate Christmas? Forgive someone who has hurt, offended, abused or betrayed you!
- Christmas is about God’s mission. I love that we promote the Lottie Moon offering at Christmas. Jesus came on a mission. We are called to participate in God’s mission of redemption in this world – through Jesus Christ and the blood shed on the Cross.
There is so much more. But the challenge is to make sure that our celebration is not limited to the shallow engagement in “The War on Christmas” or a simple focus on the Nativity story. These have a place and are needed. But we must make sure that our celebration of Christmas is rooted in the activity of God.
When we do, the celebration never ends.