I Remember Christmas

Note: Refiner’s Fire will return in January 2020. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy this reflection from my book Now for the Not-Yet: And Other Essays on Everyday Discipleship

When I was small we lived in a northern part of Ontario, in Canada, and up there the snow falls early and thick on cold, clear nights where you can see stars forever. Evergreens and stark white birch trees reach into the sky, scattered amidst jutting black rock. Animal cries drift out of a dark, wild, lonely night.

In a world like that, Christmas lights shine between the glistening white of snow and the vast glittering darkness of sky, and in a scene like that, Christmas yearning strikes a child hard.

I remember running upstairs and pushing my way into the big vacuum closet, reaching for a shoebox on the shelf and taking it down carefully, trembling a little with expectation and the fear of dropping something. The box was full of glass—ceramic figurines, beautifully painted; three wise men in ornate robes; shepherds; beautiful Mary; kindly Joseph; a donkey and a cow, sheep and a camel, with dark eyes and textured fur; and of course Jesus himself, still a baby there in glass, in a shoebox in our closet.

It was my job every year to arrange the nativity set, a job which I commandeered at as early an age as possible. It is still my job, though I let the little ones help, and I fear this year I might miss it because I’m away from home for most of the holiday season. The rest of the decorating I leave up to my father and sisters, as I have done for years, because they’re so much more artistic—and I love to come into a room that is already fragrant with cedar and twinkling with lights, a room with celebration in its very air. When I was a child I would lay under the Christmas tree when the living room was empty of other people and stare up through the branches at the lights.

This year I am celebrating differently, not by staring out into the breathless white and dark of a northern night, nor by helping bring out the Nativity set, nor by wandering around enjoying the fruit of everyone else’s labors. Instead I’m traveling with Soli Deo Gloria Ballet, our little performing arts company, and using music and narration (others dance) to urge audiences to “Behold the Child” who is Christ, our hope, the reason we can celebrate now—ever.

But I remember Christmas as a child. No matter how my observances may change over the years, no matter how busy the season grows, the shadow of those Christmases is still at my elbow, hushed and fragrant.

As a child, I loved Christmas celebrations with family. My own parents and siblings celebrated Christmas Eve and morning. A week beforehand we met at my maternal grandparents’ house with extended family to celebrate a more German-influenced holiday (plates, not stockings; and “Stille Nacht” rather than “Silent Night”; marvelous amounts of homemade fruit leather and nuts and stewed cabbage with prunes), and the day after we met at my paternal grandparents’ house (when the family was small enough) or at my uncle’s church (when the family got too big) and celebrated with them.

But I was always solitary about Christmas too. Christmas in childhood is magical, and all truly magical things have to be experienced, at least in part, alone. I would sneak off to hover over Nativity sets wherever we went, or to be outside and pray while I looked at the stars, or to lie beneath Christmas trees and look up at the lights.

I sought God in all those moments, even as a small child. I thought about the carols and what they meant. And in the mystical, cedar-scented atmosphere that was Christmas, it almost seemed like it was happening again—like heaven was drawing very much nearer to earth.

I’m older now, and I suppose that has something to do with how much the mysticism has worn off. I still try to be alone at least once on Christmas Day; throughout the season I read the gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth and the prophecies concerning him. I pray just as I did when I was small. The atmosphere isn’t so easy to tap into anymore; usually I feel all the warmth of celebration on earth but little of that strange mix of yearning and joy that signals the presence of heaven.

But I am old enough now to realize that feelings don’t mean much. They are dependent on our own resources and the circumstances of the day, but Christmas is entirely about God’s resources, God’s promises, God’s miracles, God’s Son.

Whether I feel it or not, on this day we’ve set aside as holy, we celebrate a moment when heaven really did come near to earth—very, very near—in the person of a child who grew to be a man whose Spirit has never really left. As I remember Christmas, I pray that I might live in that reality all year-round. It is still here.

I live in the reality of Christmas each time I kneel to pray in Jesus’s name, knowing that I have access to God by faith because of what Christ has done for me.

I live in the reality of Christmas each time I get together with family or friends, at home or at church, in celebration or in mourning, and look others in the face to whom I can say “the Spirit of God dwells in you” and they can look back and say “and in you.”

I live in the reality of Christmas each time I eat food as Jesus once ate, walk through grass and dust as Jesus once walked, feel pain as Jesus once felt it, experience bereavement as he who wept over Lazarus, handle practical concerns as Jesus did when he asked John to care for his mother. I live in the reality of Christmas when I take communion and hear the words, “This is my body, broken for you.” Every aspect of this physical world reminds me that Jesus was once here and lived as physically, as humanly, as I do. As you do.

I live in the reality of Christmas each time I see a gold ring and think that one day I’ll walk on streets that shine; each time I attend a wedding and realize that I am part of the Lamb’s bride; each time I take the cup, hear the words “This is my blood, poured out for you,” and realize that the blood of Christ has made atonement for me. I live in the reality of Christmas whenever God acts in my life and sanctifies me; whenever I glimpse the holiness he is working in me.

This is the miracle of incarnation—Jesus was just like us!

And this is the miracle of salvation—I will be like him!

I remember Christmas past, and I joy in Christ my Savior now. This is the miracle of life on earth: that it will become the life of heaven.

I remember Christmas as a child, its mystical beauty and the assurance that heaven is near, miracles are happening, grace is mingling with the scents of cedar and spice. All those memories mean something more now that my experience and understanding of God has matured. It is all true—whether or not I still feel it.


This post is an excerpt from my book Now for the Not-Yet: And Other Essays on Everyday Discipleship, available as an ebook from Amazon and other retailers for $4.99.

Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash







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