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Nobody has to be reminded of all the things we do preparing for Christmas–the gifts list, the decorating, shopping and baking, cards and gift wrapping, Christmas programs at school and at church, parties we plan and attend, Christmas dinner, family gatherings on the day itself. It makes me breathless even to think about it. How to bring it all off–again this year?
But the season isn’t just a challenge. For all the effort it takes, we love it. If that weren’t the case, we would hardly continue to join the hubbub. The children’s excitement is infectious. Communities wake up, and celebration is the order of the day. We love the music, the beauty of decorated shop windows and town centers. Avoiding it all is harder than simply joining in. More often than usual we say “Good morning” to those we meet. We think of more ways to spread the warmth. Then there’s the gift-giving. Everyone gets a present and we love it. Even more perhaps, we love the giving itself. It’s even more fun than taking that bow from the beautiful box with our name on it. We like being reminded that Families Matter and we stretch the definition. This is that once-a-year moment to widen the circle beyond family as we usually define the word, and it’s a pleasure to come up with the very gift for that person who seems to have everything.
The day has become a worldwide event observed even in non-Christian countries. Gingerbread houses, decorating with evergreens or holly and mistletoe, baking special treats for family, friends and neighbors–none of this has much to do with the birth of Jesus. Do we have to be reminded that these things are peripheral? Fortunately, Jesus’ birth will be suggested, even in public acknowledgments here and there, even in these secular times. Churches, schools, businesses, and communities openly celebrate Christmas, and the central event can’t be missed. It isn’t all just wreaths and red bows. Someone will remember to add the manger scene.
Consider this: At the heart of why we celebrate is a fact that seems self-contradictory. God the Son choose to join our mortality and become mortally vulnerable–that is, God himself left all his power and prerogatives to become like us, even to our inevitable death. Our mortality isn’t something we think about all the time, but when it comes to the Incarnation, we’re made to face the fact. Jesus, God the immortal Son, took on flesh–mortal flesh, incarnatus in Latin–and that for the purpose of taking our death sentence. The salvation plan is too perfect, too elegant for human invention. Only God could have conceived such a plan. Jesus was born to die in our place, a gesture of love we can hardly fathom.
Love is at the center of the season, a love so great that the fearful sacrifice was not too much to offer. This time of yearwhen we remember the coming of God the Son, we go out of our way to be nice to each other because love and good will are at the center. Community celebrations, secular or religious, are such expressions spread widely around. Greetings or little gifts for those who make our lives better are our own friendly gestures to teachers, pastors, public servants, and fellow workers. When we puzzle over what this person or that would like most and then give the gifts, we’re expressing love and affection. When we put love and Christmas together this way, even its worldwide reach begins to make sense.
How did the coming of God the Son become Christmas? One day, John the Baptizer, seeing Jesus, said to those around him, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John, a prophet, understood that Jesus of Nazareth was the Redeemer come to take our death in exchange for the life only he could give, that everlasting new kind of living in which death no longer figures. Think about the kind of love that would make that exchange. What we celebrate at Christmas is God’s love poured out for each one of us, a love so immense, the implications so wonderful, we have to prepare our minds and hearts to take it all in. In the rush of seasonal preparations, remember to prepare for Jesus. He brings a gift.