This weekend, we put up the Christmas lights, started decorating the tree, and then sang Christmas songs at church.
Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas—which, for many of us, feels like a rush into chaos.
Between all the gift giving, cookie baking, and party hosting, it can be difficult to find time to breathe, let alone reflect. Our consumeristic culture returns each year in full swing, doing all it can to dazzle and distract us; believe me, this Christmas season won’t be any different.
Believers sport bumper stickers and coffee mugs with the saying ‘Jesus is the reason for the season,’ but do we really mean it? Would Christmas be just as joy-filled even if Santa and his sleigh were taken out of the picture?
Part of celebrating Advent is slowing down and letting our hearts and minds be reoriented around the coming of Christ. This season is a celebration of many things, but mostly—powerfully—it’s a celebration of a baby boy born 2,000 years ago in the tiny town of Bethlehem. He is Jesus: the long-awaited Messiah. He spent his days on earth healing the sick, speaking life to the hurting, and bringing sight to the blind.
But it didn’t just end there.
In the greatest act of love this world has ever seen, Jesus gave up his life for the redemption of humankind.
I don’t know about you, but that’s what I want to celebrate this Christmas—a gift much greater than the latest department store gadgets and gizmos. In light of this, here are some ways that I’ve found to make the Advent season more meaningful.
First, learn to live and lean into the moment. The Advent season isn’t just for Anglicans, Baptists, or Pentecostals—it’s for all believers in every time and place. Right now as a church, we come together in celebration of a particular moment in history—a night that, in many respects, changed everything.
In his book Hidden Christmas, Tim Keller tells us that Christmas “is not just about a birth but about a coming.” God in the flesh made his home in our midst, and in doing so flew right in the face of our expectation that he was somehow distant or disinterested.
During this time of Advent, we remember Christ’s coming and long to express gratitude for all that he’s done and live in joyful expectation for all that he has yet to do. We want to feel the excitement of the magi and experience the nervousness of the virgin Mary as she held baby Jesus in her arms for the first time. We don’t want historical or cultural context to prevent us from experiencing the wonder of earth’s first Christmas.
To do this in my home this year, we’re going through Ann Voskamp’s interactive Advent celebration called The Wonder of the Greatest Gift together as a family. It’s been a helpful way for our family to slow down, take a step back, and recognize the deep meaning behind the Christmas tradition.
Second, establish healthy traditions and expectations for your family’s Christmas season. My kids, like most, appreciate the gift giving and receiving. Most of us also naturally share an appreciation for all the festive parties and time with family and friends. But none of these things should be at the core of our Christmas celebration.
The culture we live in is quick to buy into the season’s consumerism. They get wrapped up (get it?) in all the presents and can’t seem to see past Santa long enough to notice the baby in the manger. When I was a kid, I too remember the thrill of running down the stairs and eagerly ripping into mounds of wrapping paper.
As a parent, I’ve tried to do things differently. Now on Christmas mornings, my family and I take time to read through the story of Christ’s birth before tearing into any gifts. As a general rule, though, we’ve also tried to reduce the number of presents under the tree in the first place because we believe that our goal as believers is to avoid contributing to our mainstream material-obsessed culture.
Third, develop a rhythm. It’s no secret that this is a crazy time of year. Between all the parties with coworkers, neighbors, and family members—not to mention all the time spent purchasing Secret Santa presents and preparing food—schedules are packed.
But, as with the gift giving, our call as Christians is to live distinctive lives. That is, what we do and how we do it should look different from the general cultural consensus. We want our pace of life to reflect our heart for the Advent season and our desire for the God we worship to not get crowded out of the holiday festivities. So, before the busyness sets in, make some decisions about the rhythm you want to set this Christmas season—believe me, you’ll be grateful you did!
As believers, we also remember during Advent that we now live in the ‘between’ times—after the first and before the second coming. As we anticipate Christ’s second coming, we live in the knowledge that things are still not as they should be. We see people all around us, from neighbors to friends and family members, experiencing deep brokenness and long to see the final restoration of earth come to fruition.
But really, that’s what this season is: a celebration of hope. Not that the work is fully done, but that God is still doing it! He hasn’t left us, he won’t give up; he is a God in constant pursuit of lost sheep like you and me.
The child in the manger wasn’t just a sign of God’s grace on a fallen world, but a guarantee of the redemption still to come.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.