I love Christmas and all it represents. I have since I was a little boy. And the week following Christmas I invariably experience a sad nostalgia for the passing of the season. Partly because I am hopelessly sentimental, and partly because, frankly, I miss the anticipation, the joy, the warmth, and the hope of the season. For one brief shining moment in my year, the world seems to change a little for the better. I seem to change a little for the better.
Each year after Thanksgiving, our kids begin begging us to get out our Christmas decorations and put up the lights. So one day, as is our tradition, we put on our Christmas CDs, open up the boxes of ornaments and decorations, and with each piece we unpack we are reminded of Christmases past. Each ornament has a story and a history to it, and our kids enjoy hanging them on the tree and placing the decorations around our house.
But when it is time to put everything away in the boxes and bins after Christmas, they are not nearly so eager. Preparing for the season is exciting, but parting from it is like saying goodbye to beloved family and friends when they leave after the holidays. We have just had a wonderful experience, and we don’t want it to end. The days and weeks following Christmas slowly steal the wonder of those holy days, and as we look around at a house that now looks strangely bare, we can’t help thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if Christmas could last forever?
But this is not just about decorations and warm family gatherings. You see, at Christmas we get a taste of the eternal, and it whets our appetite for more. At Christmas, strained relationships often seem better as we are more willing to put aside our differences. Our three children suddenly forget to bicker and complain about each other and begin asking what the others want for Christmas. Giving takes precedence over getting. The Schaeffer household experiences holiness, peace, joy, generosity, and love in ways we don’t at other times, and our souls long for more.
Then the season ends, and the grudge we overlooked during Christmas flares up again after the new year. The weaknesses in others we were more willing to overlook during the holiday season become unacceptable once more. Our patience, strengthened and encouraged by the season, grows short again. Peace with God is a reality to those who have placed their faith in Him, but perfect peace with each other is still unattainable.
Though many promises of the Bible have been fulfilled—the Messiah has come, and our salvation has been secured—the needles of the tree of life still fall from the branches, just like the dead needles fall from our lifeless Christmas tree at a touch. Pain, disappointment, sorrow, and trials, which can be anesthetized by the Christmas season, soon reappear. Life on planet Earth is still the same.
LIFE AFTER CHRISTMAS
When I observe our own post-Christmas letdown, I can’t help but wonder what life was like for Mary and Joseph and the other characters in the Christmas story a year later. The shepherds were back in the fields with the sheep. Had they been changed? Inevitably. But had life itself changed that much for them? Probably not. Did they ever wish they could recapture the surprise, joy, and holiness of that angelic visitation and that holy moment at the manger? Did they wish those blessed moments could have lasted longer?
I wonder whether those shepherds watched the sky expectantly for the rest of their lives. Would the angels reappear? Would they bring another glorious message? Were the shepherds’ dreams filled with memories of that angelic visitation?
The Magi returned to their own homeland and their old lives. Life must go on, even after you’ve witnessed a miracle. The star that had guided them had disappeared from the sky, and their lives had been forever changed, but life on earth had not. Would they, like the shepherds, be looking for a repeat of the miracle? Would there be another celestial sign? Did they spend the rest of their lives trying to fully understand the miracle they had witnessed? Or did the daily grind of life slowly shift their focus away from that miraculous time?
Herod, the ruthless genocidal monarch, continued to abuse his power to secure his kingdom against all challengers. But did he ever find peace of mind regarding “the child born king of the Jews,” or did he remain troubled? Did he worry that somehow this renegade child-king had escaped his deadly purge and might threaten his rule one day? Did the Scriptures that the chief priests and scribes had shared with him haunt his dreams?
For a time, Mary and Joseph had to live in Egypt as refugees, hiding their son from the murderous plot of Herod. Eventually, though, they returned to their home in Nazareth—Joseph to his carpentry shop and Mary to her life of homemaking and mothering. They would never be the same as a result of their experiences, but life, with its hardship and pain, daily routine, and, yes, joy and success would go on.
Yet despite this return to the ordinary sameness of life, in reality, nothing would ever be the same again.
THE INVISIBLE CHANGE
Everything changed when Jesus entered our world. The power of sin would soon be broken, and Satan’s plans would be crushed. God’s grace had been born into our world—a power so great nothing could prevail against it. The spiritual axis of the world had shifted violently, and the effect could not have been more profound if the earth’s physical axis had shifted.
Today, the sinful momentum of our world continues, making everything seem as it was before Jesus came. But a new kingdom has been established. And by faith we live in the long shadow of that promise. At Christmas, the shadow seems to lift for a moment and we seem so much closer to that day. With its celebration, joy, excitement, warmth, and holiness, Christmas reminds us that although many wonderful promises have been fulfilled in our midst, we are still waiting for the last, eternal, Christmas morning—the one that will last forever.
As J. B. Phillips wrote, “Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet.” And he urges us as we daily tread the surface of this planet to “reflect with confidence that ‘my God has been here, here on this planet!’ ” Have you ever taken that into account during your celebration of this holy event? Your God walked this earth. He fingered the leaves on the trees and quenched His parched throat with cool water. He watched the sun rise and set and followed the moon across the night sky.
Phillips goes on to write: When God decides that the human experiment has gone on long enough, yes, even in the midst of what appears to be confusion and incompleteness, Christ will come again! This is what the New Testament teaches. This is the message of Advent. It is for us to be alert, vigilant, and industrious, so that His coming will not be a terror but an overwhelming act of joy (“The Christian Year,” Good News: Thoughts On God And Man, Macmillan, 1963).
Perhaps that is one of the elements that make our celebrations bittersweet. A part of us wants to hold on to the hope of a better world, a world where Christ has come to stay, where sin will be banished from our hearts as well as our world. We desperately want to embrace all that Christmas promises, especially Immanuel—God with us. He came to live with us, and now within us, but His inner presence only makes us desire more. The Savior has come and opened our eyes to perfect eternity, and we can’t help experiencing a sort of heavenly homesickness.
We who wait for the promise must wait a bit longer, and waiting is difficult. Henri Nouwen wrote:
For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place. They want to get out of it by doing something. . . . It impresses me, therefore, that all the figures who appear on the first pages of Luke’s gospel are waiting. Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting. Mary is waiting. Simeon and Anna, who were at the temple when Jesus was brought in, were waiting. The whole opening scene of the good news is filled with waiting people. . . . People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more (“A Spirituality Of Waiting” in The Upper Weavings Reader, The Upper Room, 1993).
Christmas provides a looking glass for all believers. God came to live among us, and now we wait for the day when we will live with Him forever. Life as we know it is not life as it will always be. As surely as God kept His promise to enter our world and bring us back to Him, so He will take us to be with Him one day. We long to live in His perfect presence as naturally as we live in this fallen, sad, and dying world.
The blessed hope and the painful reality are rarely in greater contrast than at Christmas. Our greatest dreams and our deepest despair often intersect in the holy season. Both are real—hence our conflict. The celebration of Christmas is a delicious spiritual hors d’oeuvre to eternity, tantalizing us with reminders that the banquet is yet to come, and it will be eternally satisfying.
KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON
Part of the real Christmas spirit is the hope it inspires in us of the day when Jesus will come again, no longer the baby in the manger, but the Lord of all the earth. That is the ultimate fulfillment of all that Christmas promises. The Babe from Bethlehem will revisit the planet He once called home. But this time He will not come in humility; He will come in power. Death will be overcome forever, replaced by eternal life. Old things will pass away; behold, new things will come.
Lies will be replaced with truth, and injustice will become extinct. Sadness, pain, regret, loss, failure, and tears will pass away like the ice age, never to return. And those of us who spent so many years celebrating Christmas in the firm belief that one day faith would become sight will wake to that eternal morning. Until then, in each celebration of Christmas we are turning the light on in anticipation of that final morning.
Pastor and author Robert Russell tells the story of a family in their subdivision that kept their Christmas lights on long after the season was past. In fact, they were still on through January and the first of February. As the middle of February drew near, Russell couldn’t help being a little critical. If I were too lazy to take my Christmas lights down, I think I’d at least turn them off at night, he thought. But about the middle of March a sign appeared outside the house that explained why they’d left the lights on. It said simply, “Welcome home, Jimmy.” Russell then learned that the family had a son in Vietnam, and they had unashamedly left their Christmas lights on in anticipation of his return.
Lights are a symbol of hope. And Christmas is how we “keep the lights on,” anticipating His return.
All the joys of all our Christmas experiences will pale before the advent of the last, eternal, Christmas morning. The divine Christmas Light will never be extinguished, the joy will never fade, the hope will finally be fulfilled. The King—our King—will have come at last. The long promised kingdom of God will be ushered in, and our fervent dreams will be reality. Peace on earth, good will to men will no longer be a hope or a motto on a Christmas card. It will be the actual inheritance of all who have longed for His appearing. Each Christmas we keep the lights on, knowing that promise is a little closer.
When we speak of the hope of Christmas, we are imagining something other than what we are currently experiencing—something better, something eternal.
Imagine the last Christmas morning. Imagine what life will be like when our world is ruled by our Lord who loved us so much that He died for us. What will life be like when the only emotions that fill our hearts are joy and love and peace? What will it be like to have no fear, no anxiety, no anger, no envy, no jealousy, no tears or sadness, because the world in which we live is so perfect that no such emotions can be produced? What will it be like to be so changed internally that we actually fit in a perfect world, so changed that we have become something fundamentally different than we can ever hope to attain here on earth? What will it be like to live a perfect life—forever? What eternal wonders await those who will walk and live forever with our God in His perfect world?
Through His first coming—what we call Christmas—God revealed to us how much we have to look forward to in His second coming. And with every Christmas morning I experience, I know I am that much closer to the last Christmas morning.
So this Christmas, and for all the days thereafter, my goal is to keep the lights on in my heart in anticipation of His return. When He does, the last Christmas morning will dawn—and never end.