I have gotten into the habit of listening to the Christmas Carole, Mary, Did You Know? at least half-a-dozen times during the Christmas season. I am particularly fond of the Pentatonix version.
Part of what I love about this Christmas classic is that there is a profound question presented to us through it. The question posed to Mary is the question we too must face – it’s penetrating, personal, and provoking. It moves us past the events of the nativity and forces us to ponder it’s meaning. It’s beautiful and scary all at the same time.
In my experience, the Christmas story has meant different things at various seasons of my life. That is part of what I love about the story. It is big enough to capture us in all the seasons of life and bring us back to a centering place.
In my younger years, the Christmas celebration provided a place of security.
I grew up in a Dutch family, Saint Nicholas and Christmas were actually celebrated on two different dates when I was a kid. In the Netherlands, the day of giving presents is celebrated on December 5. It’s very festive day usually including poems, home-made gifts, songs and lots of laughter. There is also a nice dinner, and it is very much a friend and family affair.
The birth of Jesus was celebrated on December 25th and that day was all about the religious observance. We would have a special Christmas breakfast with the family, and then we would go to church. And then sometime later in the day my dad would pull out the family Bible, and we would read the story from Luke 2 in the Old King James translation.
Hearing it in the original old English provided that sense of familiarity and wonder. Those moments reminded us of the goodness of faith and family. God loved people enough to come in human form. The reliving of the story provided an internal sense of security that is still hard to fully explain!
But then life happened.
As we grow up, most of us realize the world is not necessarily a secure place after all. I was scrawny blond –haired kid with a funny last name. I was very self-conscious and perhaps a bit over-sensitive. I was teased mercilessly at school, never really excelled at sports, and always felt like a bit of a misfit. In those days, God and church seemed out-of-touch with the world I knew. I entered my adolescence in the late 60’s and culturally everything was in flux. People were very much into the party scene – and I desperately wanted to feel a part of the crowd. I would have done pretty much anything to be one of the cool kids.
About that same time, my mom was dealing with the worst of her depression (after all that she had suffered as a POW in WWII). My dad was doing everything he knew to do keep things running around the house, while my mom spent long stretches of time in the hospital.
Our family had Americanized to the point where we eventually abandoned the December 5th St Nicholas celebration and did it all on December 25th, but that said, we tried to reserve Christmas Eve for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. We’d go to the candlelight Christmas service at church. In those days I was stoned for most of them. So, I didn’t really get it. The whole thing felt like a mystery totally beyond me in those days.
I desperately wanted to believe that something like God existed. I certainly needed for something like God to be true. It just seemed too fantastic, too fairy-tale-ish, and too wrapped up in religious ritual to be meaningful for a drug abuser like myself. Although, I remember wishing it could all be that simple!
One of the things I hated about my rebellious years was that I had to become someone else in order to be accepted. I had to conform to whatever everyone else was doing in order to be seen as somebody – and eventually that just got really old to me. The irony was that their message was, ‘Be free! Be you!” but, I felt trapped by this incessant need to fit in. Finally, it hit me, if this were the way to real life – then I should be able to be my real self. I shouldn’t have to become something else. But every time I ventured out (even a little bit), I was quickly reminded that was not going to cut it. Party people had rules too.
And maybe that is really what ultimately won my heart to the story of Christmas. I realized that there was an identity for me that was authentic and true. This was what God wanted for me (even more than I wanted it for myself), and the whole reason he came to earth in the form of a man was so that I could discover it.
I finally saw the world through a fresh lens. Sin is sold as something that will make life better. It comes with a promise of fun and fantasy fulfillment. But, once you head down that path, you realize very quickly it changes you. You have to become something else. You have to become a lie. You don’t see at first. It happens slowly. But one day you wake up and wonder how you got here. You look at yourself in the mirror and exclaim, “How did I become this? This is not what I want to be!”
And that place of honesty is the window through which a fresh revelation can be seen.
One has to marvel at what a great act of compassion the event of Christmas story really is. God leaving the glory of heaven and coming in the form of a baby to concretely identify with us so that we can find our true identity in him! What a wonder! And what a joy! There is nothing like finding a place for your heart to call home at Christmas.
Today I look back and I have been a follower of Jesus for 45 years. I’ve been involved with ministry for 40 years. I have had good times and bad. There have been high points and low points and everything in-between. The last couple of years have brought their own unique set of health challenges. But there has always been a place of stability – a place to come back to; a place to call home. And it is the reality of the story that I have been recounting here in this short essay.
God is active. God is not aloof or distant. He is close at hand. Always has been, but Christmas proved that case once and for all. And maybe reading the musings of this “professional Christian” you might assume I never have doubts, troubles, or times when I need to know and feel the power and the reality of what I am describing all over again. But the truth is, I wrestle with all the same stuff you do. I am Christian leader, but I’m mostly a follower and a fellow struggler. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have something stable to come back to every December.
Every year I try to think about the Christmas story from a slightly different angle.
This year it was about reflecting on the arc of the story over the whole of my life. Perhaps my soon coming retirement is what prompted me to think through that grid. But whatever prompted it, I get to say it again, “I do believe all this. God has been good to me and my family. He does know and he does care – and no matter what else is happening in my life – at least I have this to hold on to!”
May I use this opportunity to ask you, what you are holding on to?
What do you have (that’s stable) to stand on when everything else is like mushy sand?
This incredible and familiar story is a story of hope and life. It’s the constant reminder that no matter where you are – he is here! No matter the season of your life – he is relevant. He’s been all things to me – my security, my mystery, my identity, and my stability…
He can be all of that to you as well!