I struggle with Christmas.
Perhaps you know what I mean. Every year I slog through December, a month of materialism on display, seeking the elusive “Christmas spirit.” Ah yes, the Christmas spirit, that warm inner glow we all hope to achieve through the perfect blend of festive activities, seasonal decorations, crisp cool nights, and — let’s not forget — a pinch of pious recognition of the baby in a manger.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever achieved that elusive Christmas spirit. Instead, December is a time of stress and anticlimax. It has its good moments, for sure, but I feel too overwhelmed by the holiday to enjoy the Holy Day.
I know I’m not alone in this quandary. Christmas has a long history as a tug-of-war between what theologians refer to as the sacred and the profane. Go back in history and find pious worship of the infant Christ on one end, and drunkenness and revelry on the other. In our era we see recognition of “the reason for the season” on one end, and commercialism run amok on the other.
I’ve spent some time this month pondering what could bring me closer to God in this noisy, stressful, secularized time of year. Something that has helped me is looking at the Christmas story from a rather different source: the Gospel of John.
If you’re a student of the Bible you might interject, “Wait a minute, John doesn’t give us a nativity story. Only Matthew and Luke do that.” And you’d be right: only Matthew and Luke include narratives of the birth of Jesus.
But John doesn’t ignore Jesus’ coming into the world. Not at all. What John tells, however, is not a human story, but a holy story. “The true light,” he tells us, “which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” In our modern society, where knowledge of scripture and an understanding of its contents are so lacking, it’s worth being reminded that Christmas isn’t simply about a baby born in Bethlehem. That baby was, and is, the true light, bringing light into our darkened world.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” With this beautiful sentence John tells us that the divine became human to dwell in our midst, that the glory of God became accessible to humankind, and shared with us his grace and truth.
This is what we miss out on, even with our usual images of Christmas. Nativity scenes tell an important story, many of our Christmas carols tell it too, but recalling the birth of Jesus does us little good if we forget the depth of his identity. He was a baby, yes; born to a virgin, yes; but he was also God Himself made flesh, a miracle of miracles, a gift above all gifts.
This profound truth may not cheer me up much as I wander through Walmart, among throngs of people buying unneeded things for a holiday many of them, maybe most of them, don’t understand. Nevertheless, in quieter moments I can remember with joy and with profound gratitude that God broke into human history, for me, as well as for you. The light of the world, the Word of God, the glory of heaven: this is the truth of Christmas; this is our reason to celebrate.
The Rev. William E. Pike has pastored the United Methodist congregation in New Market since 2011. He also works for Myler Church Building Systems. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.