In the hubbub of Christmas, we can find it difficult to live in a way that demonstrates that we think it’s about more than just tinsel and turkey. Here, I offer a few ideas on how we might embody and reclaim the real Christmas spirit in the way we set our expectations and talk about it!
In her excellent book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn chandler McEntyre makes the stark claim that our words don’t just describe reality but they also create it! “When a word falls into disuse,” she writes, “the experience goes with it. We are impoverished not only by the loss of a precise descriptor, but by the atrophy and extinction of the very thing it describes.” She uses the example of the word ‘merry’, pointing out that where traditionally, someone who is apparently happy for no specific reason might be described by the word, now the only time we really use the word is at Christmas … and thus now we’re only really merry at Christmas. Her point is that unless we carefully monitor the words we use, our lives and culture is shaped in ways we don’t want them to be.
So, I believe it’s time we reclaim some words for Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives to shape our Christmas celebrations!
Reclaiming the word “Fearful”!
Matt 1:20, 2:22, Luke 1:12, 1:50, 1:65, 1:74
Although the famous angelic proclamation in the nativity story is “Do not be afraid!”, we can forget that the angels assumed the shepherds would be afraid and wanted to acknowledge their inevitable fear from the outset! In fact, it’s not just the shepherds who were afraid– Joseph was pretty petrified too along with Zechariah and all of his neighbours! Fear seems to punctuate the birth stories from beginning to end.
In fact, there is only one positive reference to fear in both Matthew and Luke’s birth stories. In Mary’s song she declares, “his [God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). She understands that fear isn’t to be banished completely, but that ‘fearing’ God rightly, approaching his holiness with reverence and humility, is essential to serving him well and living in intimate relationship with him.
Celebrating God this Christmas requires that we cultivate a fear of Him in our communities and homes – that we teach our children and our neighbours to fear God. There is something significant in our celebrating Christmas at the darkest part of the year. Yes God comes to break into our darkness – but first, if we are as fully surrendered as Mary to serving God when and where he calls us, then we need not completely banish fear, but allow it to grow in us the joy and humility we need to see his Kingdom come through us!
2. Reclaiming the word ‘Pondering’
Luke 1:29, 1:66, 2:19
Connected to this healthy fear, is stopping in the first place to consider who we are in Him and how we feel. The act of pondering cuts against so much of the efficiency-driven culture we live in. Pondering doesn’t get stuff done! Pondering suggests a thinking that doesn’t go anywhere, an introspection even that meanders without an ultimate goal.
I want to suggest that pondering in the nativity stories makes God’s plan part of a person’s identity and future direction. We know about Mary’s famous pondering. She ponders the angel’s pronouncement and takes seriously the personal consequences of what she has just heard. The other ‘ponderers’ in Luke are the neighbours who see Zechariah’s tongue loosened once he names his son John.
Interestingly, Zechariah’s neighbours pondered all the things they had seen and heard happen … basically, God’s plan outworked before their eyes! Luke records that the neighbours said to one another in reference to John, “What then will this child become?” Their pondering had opened their eyes to the fact that this wasn’t just a story that was happening to someone else but that this child’s future had implications that would personally implicate them!
For me, the call to ponder and to talk about Christmas as a time for pondering is to recognise that God’s plan is not far away – it’s not something for other people, it’s not only happening elsewhere: it’s happening right here, right now, in and through you. Pondering is coming to terms with that and daring to offer yourself to partner with God in his Kingdom come in your here and now.
3. Reclaiming the word ‘Conception’:
Matt 1:23, Luke 1:31
Once we’ve cultivated a healthy fear that God’s intervention is likely going to push us out of our comfort zones and then we’ve taken some time to ponder our involvement in the mission of the great God we serve, a conception occurs – God births something in us that he then grows to maturity.
Often Christmas is about the end of the year – going out with a bang, spending the money we’ve saved, recuperating from a busy season, catching up with people we have not seen during the year etc. etc. But what if, instead of seeing it and talking about Christmas as the end of something, we started to refer to it as about the beginning of something?! I am so aware that I live a very seasonal life. I am open to God doing new things in me in Spring and Autumn, but Summer and Christmas aren’t for that – they’re for other things … like relaxing and closing up old accounts.
And so, this year I am challenging myself to speak over my own celebrations a healthy fear of the mighty works of an incredible God, a pondering spirit that is willing to claim my own part in God’s Kingdom come right now and expect him to conceive in me something new, something different, something fresh of his Spirit and life.
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