Gary Clayton reminds everyone, including Christians, what the Christmas season is all about.
To millions around the world Christmas is the most eagerly anticipated time of the year. For some, it’s a time of joy, celebration, family and worship. For others, it can be a profoundly lonely, materialistic or depressing experience.
Christmas, however one celebrates it, presents a number of problems, whether past, present or future. Some years ago, a parent taking on the role of Santa at a school fair departed from the traditional script when one of his young visitors went blank, having forgotten the presents he wanted.
‘Surely you’d like something for Christmas!’ repeated the exasperated Santa to the startled boy. ‘World peace? A pay rise? An orange or a piece of coal?’
The child, like a reindeer trapped in the proverbial car’s headlights, was now totally confused. ‘A stone? A snail?’ the man continued. Totally nonplussed, the small boy nodded in desperation. ‘Well,’ said Father Christmas, ‘I’m sure…’
But before he could say anything else, the child burst into tears, afraid that all he’d get for Christmas would be a slimy slug or a dirty piece of rock. ‘Oh well’, said Santa, in a bid to console the sobbing infant, ‘I’m sure we can get you something suitable’ — and hoped he’d got away with it!
And this is just one of the problems we face at Christmas. Apart from high anxiety (will the Christmas dinner be burnt this year?), expectations and cost, the emphasis on Santa and his gifts presents many in the affluent West with a dilemma.
Do people see Christmas as an opportunity to celebrate Jesus’ birth, or will God, the giver of all good gifts, be supplanted by a red-robed figure and his expensive Christmas list?
And so, as the season of goodwill draws nigh and the seductive shops deafen our ears with their endless exhortation to eat, drink and be merry, or spend, spend, spend, there’s a distinct danger that the claims of our Saviour will once again be crowded out.
But is there anything we can do when surrounded by the catchy cacophony of shop store pop songs and the materialism that saps the spirit and never quite lives up to its promise? Is it possible, in the incessant busyness of the countdown to 25 December, for us to get off the merry-go-round of a not-so-merry Christmas?
The season purportedly promises peace and goodwill, but that doesn’t necessarily apply if you’re queuing in a crowded shop, being jostled in a bustling department store or taking your chance in the grab-it-while-you-can frenzy of a pre-Christmas sale!
Do we go with the short-tempered flow, or use the season as a time to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit, ‘love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23)?
Rather than write a list of the things we’d like, wouldn’t it be better to make a list of the things God has done for us? Or a list of the things we can do for him?
‘Christmas,’ people sometimes say, ‘is for kids’. But is it possible that ‘the magic of Christmas’ can sometimes wear off, lose its lustre or become a little jaded?
The American humourist Erma Bombeck once said, ‘There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child’. The child actress Shirley Temple stopped believing in Santa Claus when she was six. ‘Mother’, she said, ‘took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph’. A worldly, materialistic, non-Christian celebration of Christmas will just leave us hollow.
But what can we do to put Christ back into Christmas and present his claims rather than claim the presents most of us neither want nor need?
For some, it can be a time of sadness and loneliness, more melancholy than holy. I still remember our last, bitter-sweet Christmas with my father, before he finally passed away. As a result, I’m increasingly aware of other people’s lonesomeness and sorrow.
Christmas can be a terribly sad time for those who mourn friends, family, parents, children or the unborn. There’s the sadness of the person whose spouse has forsaken them for another, leaving them desolate and alone. Or the serviceman’s partner who’s on her own while her loved one serves overseas in a situation fraught with danger.
The Bible says much about how Christians should relate to such people, offering them hospitality and kindness. A prayer, friendly visit or invitation to a Christmas service could be just the thing to provide them with the hope and help they need.
Christmas isn’t always the easiest time of year. There’s the family whose children have flown the nest and now spend only the briefest of times with their ageing parents, if even that. Or the mum and dad separated from their missionary offspring by thousands of miles, in a far-off country where Christianity is outlawed, frowned upon or viewed with suspicion. Let’s think of such people. If we’re Christians let’s pray, offer sympathy and provide fellowship.
And what about those who’ve lost their jobs and face a new year of financial instability, depressing job applications and harrowing interviews, and need our sympathy, love and practical financial support? Or those who are elderly and alone and who only have a TV, radio or bottle of wine to keep them company?
Let’s think about them this Christmas, rather than ourselves. Let’s pray for them, intercede for them, see if we can share our Christmas with someone rather than leaving others on their own.
The above, of course, represents not only the sadder side of Christmas, but also demonstrates the many loving, life-affirming and genuine opportunities there are for the Christian gospel.
Christmas can also be a time of great joy and celebration. Consider the patient who’s discharged from hospital in time to join his children on Christmas day, or the beloved child who returns home to her parents in time to celebrate Christmas.
There’s the family who never thought they could have children, celebrating their first Christmas with their beautiful newborn, aware of the miracle that is birth. Or the believer whose heart is once again quickened by the inspiring account of the virgin birth and God’s amazing grace-filled goodness in providing new life for those who accept Jesus.
Then there’s the person who encounters Christ for the first time through a Christmas service, conversation or reading Scripture, and who accepts God’s call to repent and believe. Or the loving family enjoying walks, talks, carols, church services and quality time together, creating joyful and thank-filled memories.
Christmas, whatever its imperfections, is a great time to revisit the incarnation story and worship God anew. It’s a fantastic opportunity to worship Immanuel — ‘God with us’ — in the spirit of the Magi in Matthew 2:11.
I often wonder if Christmas ought to be more of a spiritual state of mind than a once a year celebration. As American clergyman Roy L. Smith once wrote, ‘He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree’.
We may not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth (it’s most unlikely it was the traditionally accepted western date of 25 December) but, by preventing Christmas from becoming a time of inordinate excess, we can certainly celebrate his birth and its eternal ramifications without ‘all the (unnecessary) trimmings’. As Galatians 4:4-5 makes clear, ‘But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship’.
We do not know what ‘time’ that was, but we know it did occur — and was prophesied! As Isaiah 9:6 explains: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’.
Other Christ-fulfilled predictions include Genesis 49:10, Micah 5:2 and Isaiah 7:14. Rather like the sack Santa purportedly carries, Christmas can be a mixed bag. All too often it can be a mixed-up time of somewhat mixed blessings, unless we dedicate our time to the One whom the season supposedly honours, intentionally honouring him in all we do, and doing all we can to share the glad tidings with others.
May all those who read this issue of ET enjoy a Christmas filled with God’s blessing. Amid the hustle and bustle of possibly the busiest and potentially the loneliest and most stressful time of the year, may we experience life in all its fulness (John 10:10), the peace which transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:7) and — for those yet to know the Saviour — the miracle of rebirth. A blessed Christmas to you all!
Gary Clayton is married to Julie, the father of Christopher (14) and Emma (11), and is copywriter and editor at Mission Aviation Fellowship. To learn how MAF’s fleet of 128 light aircraft help some of the world’s poorest, remotest and most vulnerable people, visit www.maf-uk.org