One Christmas afternoon, in the midst of a present opening frenzy, (the bit before someone gets stressed by a missing present lost in piles of discarded wrapping paper) one of my sons hugged me thanking me for his present. ‘Oh, what is it?’ I asked. I hadn’t a clue what ‘we’ had given him. That was when I realised, I was getting Christmas all wrong.
When I began teaching and writing on ‘hollow religion’, I used the image of a Christmas tree. Something cut off from its roots, dressed up to look pretty, but now dead, sparkly but soon discarded. I came to recognise so much of my Christmas had become like that. Many times, when normal life stopped for 2 weeks over Christmas, I had detached from Jesus, so absorbed in religious activity that I’d hardly talked with him. I would enter the New Year drained or ashamed.
If Christmas gets religious, everyone misses out. Clergy families get burned out parents, congregations get absorbed with trivial non-essentials, non-believing visitors only experience performance not presence.
One year I proposed to our PCC (semi-seriously) that we cancel Christmas because it was just hollow religion, they (more seriously and unanimously) rejected my proposal on the grounds that we exist to glorify Jesus so his birth is worth celebrating. There have been many times in early January, during worship, I’ve suddenly had a sense of waking up again, filling my lungs with fresh air after weeks of spiritual fog. I love those moments of reconnection with Jesus, like arriving at friends’ home to be greeted after a long journey. But does Christmas have to be spiritually foggy? Do we have to ‘just plough through it’? – I am a redeemed grinch, a few years ago I wholeheartedly repented of hating Christmas, here’s how I’ve tried to live out Christmas without religion.
Focus on the best bits. I absolutely love the joyful celebration on Christmas day with our church family. I absolutely love watching people we’ve prayed for all year coming to church and hearing about Jesus. I absolutely love the deep rich truths about hope and light in those familiar Bible readings. Take time to study how many times God speaks, miracles happen and angels appear in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, it will blow your mind.
Book ends. Before Christmas begins, we have a ‘soaking’ evening, a night of pure worship (without any carols) to enjoy God’s presence and prepare for the season ahead by investing in connection with him and letting him speak to us. In early January we make space in our worship to reconnect with God and receive his forgiveness where our priorities got messed up.
Prayer and Mission. Amidst cultural change, still more people come to church at Christmas than any other time of the year, it’s a great time for mission. To show generosity to our communities, and to initiate ways to take the kingdom outside church, (last year we left 600 knitted angels around Romiley and God used this little act of kindess to bless hundred – you can read about it here ). To welcome people to hear the story of who Jesus is. I’ve found all that mission activity shifts from busy burden to joyful anticipation when I pray. We are blessed to live in a wonderful community, through school connections Nells and I have made many friends who don’t know Jesus. Through November and December I partner with the Holy Spirit in praying for them daily (he often has to remind me!). My heart explodes with joy when they turn up in church and I enjoy a moment of private celebration with Jesus.
Enjoy those private moments with God. Christmas is busy and crazy and crowded, normal life stops but that doesn’t mean we lose connection with God. There is amazing intimacy with those we love, of secret communication in the midst of a crowd. I take moments of solitude in the midst of Christmas craziness, to stop and just enjoy being with God. I thank him when things go well, I laugh with him when things go wrong, I ask him to show me little gems of truth afresh each year as I prepare talks. I’m learning to walk through Christmas with my Father, rather than say “see you in January’ and get on with being too busy serving him (& the expectations of my parish).
Spiritual disciplines. Like many, I was so helped by John Mark Comer’s teaching at New Wine United week 2, in particular reshaping our lives around Sabbath. This year I’ll be taking that into Christmas. What preparations do we need to enable quality time detached from work?
Can I surrender and ask God’s guidance on when to feast and when to fast through this season?
Above all, enjoy celebrating Jesus.