Nothing wrong with getting nostalgic at Christmas, is there?
Do you remember the feel of that thin, shiny foil Christmas presents used to be wrapped in? Or the Georgian soldier and his sweetheart on top of the tin of chocolates you were not allowed to touch until Christmas Eve? Can you recall the excitement you felt when decorating the entire ceiling and walls with metallic streamers and paper chains, or how the whole family looked forward to the brand-new Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special? What about snow? Remember that? I’m sure we always had snow at Christmastime, didn’t we?
Hopefully for many people, looking back at Christmas Past will fill them with joy to recall time spent with loved ones who are now no longer with us. Thinking of how our childhood Christmases were always made as special as possible by our parents, regardless of how little money we actually had, can conjure up that warm, fuzzy feeling we come to associate with a Hallmark Christmas.
Cherishing the past is no bad thing – but nostalgia’s tinted spectacles can make us imagine things were always chocolate-box perfect and filled with seasonal ‘magic’. The reality was probably a lot of hard graft, slightly burned meat and soggy sprouts, and a bleak, grey Christmas morning with not even a whisper of snow. Disney has nothing on our own imaginations.
And that’s the trouble: those who, like winged history, always look back while we press forward into the uncertain future will end up seeing a distorted picture of what once was. Nostalgia makes us believe things ‘were better then’.
Considering this year has been one of the worst in living memory for billions of people, it is understandable that people will be looking back to the past and wishing Christmas could be as ‘just like the ones we used to know’. I don’t blame anyone for feeling this.
But I do believe the danger for Christians is that we can get so caught up in the ‘spirit of the season’ – yes, even in the midst of a pandemic – that we spend more time in front of Amazon.com than in front of our Bibles. And even if we do keep our focus on the Bible, we may be tempted to dwell longer at the manger than at the cross.
It could be argued that some Christians may even spend more time at the cross than in watchful anticipation of Christ’s return. When we get ‘stuck’ on what was instead of what will be, we risk forgetting that this life is only temporary; our time on earth no more than a journey to eternity.
The apostle Paul knew the importance of not getting tangled up with the past – either by our temptations or our traditions. In Philippians 3:13-14 he urges us to look to Christ and remember our goal is heaven. If you’re reading this, you’re not there yet. The race is still on – but are you still running in it?
Paul says, ‘Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’
Christians should be people of the future but too often we are people of the past. We should be ‘pressing forward’; instead, we are wishing things could be as they were. We should be ‘looking ahead’; instead we are looking back wistfully.
The path from the manger
This does not mean we should not be filled with great gratitude for the incarnation. That goes without saying. If Christmas memories only stretch as far as clementines in knitted stockings and Aunt Ivy’s magnificent brandy butter, that is myopic at best, spiritually damaging at worst.
Christian generally know we need to push nostalgia aside and bring to mind the gospel story. It is right to let our minds and hearts dwell on what it meant for Christ to leave heaven and come down to earth as one of us.
Christ’s birth in human form at that critical period in human history marked the moment of God’s amazing intervention in the direction of all our lives.
No wonder Charles Wesley felt compelled to write these inspiring words:
Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
We ought to look back at the incarnation and fall down metaphorically in adoration, just as the shepherds did two thousand years ago when they gazed on the tiny, swaddled second Person of the Trinity.
But we cannot stay there. We ought also to remember that path that led out from Bethlehem’s manger, towards Nazareth, Galilee, Jerusalem, and finally to a hill outside the city wall, where the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified. We ought to kneel at the cross in repentance and thankfulness, praising Jesus our blessed Redeemer for his sacrifice.
But our minds must not leave us there, either. We cannot stay in the stable; we must not stay at Golgotha or we risk the angelic admonition, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’
Christ rose from the dead – he is a living Saviour. He is no baby king, or a dead hero, but a powerful God. He will come again. He will return to end all things and to bring in the new heavens and the new earth. This is a future he has promised will come to fulfilment, and when God promises something will happen, it happens.
Let us Christians remember that fact. We must press forward. It is no use wishing things were as they used to be; we must work towards the great harvest that is to come. If we are blindsided by nostalgia this Christmastime, as understandable as it might be when the world around us seems to have gone to pot, we will cease to run the race. You can’t look backwards while pressing onwards.
So hang those wreaths, wrap those gifts, baste that turkey and, by all means, overboil those sprouts. Have a blessed and wonderful Christmas, despite everything this year has thrown at us. But remember to look forward – there’s an even better day coming.