I’m the one who’s been screaming “Santa’s coming!” since October, and for perhaps the first year in recent memory, most of America seems OK decking the halls just a little bit earlier.
At the risk of romanticizing the impetus for our speedy embrace of the Yuletide season, I think the reason is perhaps more spiritual than we know.
Holiday decorations are already gracing storefront windows, Christmas tree lights are glowing in our living rooms, and the songs of the season have begun wafting through the air of department stores. The obvious reason for our earlier-than-usual glad tidings is because it’s a welcome distraction from what has been a difficult and dreary year.
But I believe there’s a deeper motivation behind our embrace of Christmas this year. Perhaps more than ever, we are longing for Emmanuel.
That special something that makes Christmastime so innately appealing to us isn’t the songs or the decorations or even the food; it’s the profound realization of the radical truth that God is with us.
Here’s a little history lesson: our traditional celebration of Christmas on Dec. 25 is actually rooted in paganism (yes, really). Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this. According to historian Kenneth C. Davis, the wintertime holiday was initially a pagan celebration of the solstice, which marked the day the sun returned and the days began growing longer. And placing decorated evergreen trees inside homes symbolized a “return to life” and “light” as the planet showed its first hints of shifting seasons.
So when Christianity became the mainstream religion in Rome, the winter solstice holiday turned into Christmas, a celebration of when God became flesh and blood and dwelt among us. The hints of the changing seasons are so faint, you might not notice them — unless you’re paying attention. The same was true of Jesus. In humility, the savior of the world was born in a lowly stable in Bethlehem when his mother Mary and father Joseph were denied a room at the inn. His entrance might have been meager by our standards, but His presence is triumphant.
Just as the solstice promised pagans spring was dawning, so Jesus’ birth symbolized to the world that new life — radical redemption and inexplicable grace all at once — had arrived. And it changed everything forever.
Craig Denison, author of the new Christmas devotional book “Emmanuel,” told Faithwire that, on a “deeper level,” we need “to recognize in a more present way and a more consistent way the reality of God being with us.”
In writing the book, Denison said he was reminded how “shocking and scandalous the coming of Christ is when we think about it at a deeper level, when we think about God taking on flesh and becoming a baby.”
“Those things invited me to a depth of engagement with God that surprised me,” he continued. “It started to produce an uncommon level of meaning in my life as I was diving into these passages and creating this content. … I started to realize in reality how eternal the notion of Christ is — that God is bringing himself into being with us in so many ways.”
Our collective need for Emmanuel is so clear right now. The world has grappled with a difficult and depressing season over the course of this past year. Some have lost family members and friends, others have watched as their businesses slipped away, others still continue to look for work. Some have dealt with serious bouts of depression, loneliness, and anxiety, unsure the life they had just a mere 10 months ago will ever return.
Because God came to earth and lived with us, He knows what it’s like to experience sorrow, to wrestle with anxiety, to feel the pangs of this fallen world. As Denison said, the coming of Jesus reveals “God’s grace.”
“He’s not an impersonal God, He’s not a God who’s distant from even our experience as humans, and in fact, Jesus knows what it is,” he explained. “Scripture tells us He’s a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. I think we see that in the coming of Christ, in the form of Jesus living this life for our sake and on our behalf, and for me personally in this season, I don’t know that I’ve ever needed more than this year God to be present with me and to be so well acquainted with sorrow and grief and suffering.”
Christmas is the recognition and celebration of the fact that the God of the universe knows us, experiences life with us and offers to carry our heaviest burdens for us.
There’s an old Frank Sinatra song called “Christmas Dreaming.” In it, the famed crooner sings: “I’m doing my Christmas dreaming a little early this year. No sign of snow around, and yet, I go around hearing jingle bells ringing in my ear.”
In 2020, let those jingle bells remind you of the greatest news the world has ever known: the very God who created you is desperate to truly know you.