When Christians Dread Christmas

A few years ago, I had the privilege of sharing a longer version of this with my church as we thought together about the ways that Christmas hurts us, disappoints us, and let’s us down. Sometimes, its things from our pasts that haunt us, sometimes its a keen sense of not measuring up, and sometimes, its sheer hopelessness at the gaps between others and myself.

I hope you find it worth the read:

What do you like least about Christmas?
Have you ever looked back at Christmas and been disappointed?

In his book, Living with Eternity in Your Heart, Mark Buchanan writes about what I call the “Christmas Paper Blues.” It’s what happens on Christmas morning. Mark says that he even saw it in his children when they reached the age that Christmas morning became the “Day of Getting.” There were mounds of gifts beneath the tree, and his son led the way in that favorite childhood (and, more subtly, adult) game, How Many Are for Me? But the telling moment came Christmas morning when the gifts were handed out. The children ripped through them, shredding and scattering the wrappings like jungle plants before a well-wielded machete. Each gift was beautiful: an intricately laced dress Grandma had sewn, an exquisitely detailed model car Uncle Bob had found at a specialty store, a finely bound and gorgeously illustrated collection of children’s classics Aunt Susan had sent. The children looked at each gift briefly, their interest quickly fading, and then put it aside to move on to the Next Thing. When the ransacking was finished, his son, standing amid a sea of boxes and bright crumpled paper and exotic trappings, asked plaintively, “Is this all there is?”

That’s it! The Christmas Paper Blues. We adults still experience it too. We get to the end of the unwrapping and ask, “Is this all there is?” Now we might not way that out loud, but the chances are good that we feel that way. In a very real way, that question is more than the greedy cry of an unsatisfied, pampered pouter. It is the longing cry of every human heart. At the end of desire lies a vast desert of unsatisfied longing which will always feel empty at the end of our frenzied gift – opening, and want to ask, “That’s it?

As Christians, we know we are to celebrate this time of year with anticipation and delight, yet I think many times, a lot of us, including myself, face this season with a mixture of trepidation and dread. For many reasons, this season can bring emotions of remorse, guilt, and dissatisfaction…but that is not what I want to talk about in detail.
Rather I would like to talk about what happens when “unbridled expectations slam into reality”, that is, when everything that we’ve hoped and waited for and anticipated and dreamed of and longed for does not satisfy, leaving us with garbage bags full of wrapping paper, an empty pantry, empty wallets, and an empty heart.

Since a believer’s proper understanding of the Christmas season should be rooted firmly in God’s word, we will look at a passage from both the New and the Old Testament to work on answering our question of what “it” is…and how we can obtain “it”.

First Colossians 2:8-19

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form,
10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;
11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ;
12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,
14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.
16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—
17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind,
19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.

Then turn with me back to the pages of the Old Testament, to the Wisdom book that grapples with the issues of meaning and purpose.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11

1 There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—
2 A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
3 A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
4 A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
5 A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
6 A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
7 A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
8 A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.
9 What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?
10 I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves.
11 He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.

In the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, he says: ““If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside;
I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.

I ran across this quote a few weeks ago, and the phrase “I was made for another world” really resonated with me. The good things we enjoy, as Lewis says “are only the echoes, the copies, the mirage”….and that is where I tend to end up in an upside down tail spin at Christmas time (and most other times of the year, I must admit) when I allow the regret of what I have not accomplished or experienced to swallow up the magnitude of the grace and mercy that saved me.

The key verses are Colossians 2:16-17 and Ecclesiastes 3:11
16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—
17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
And
11 He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.

It is out of these verses that I hope to share what I have learned about a view of Christmas that is moulded and shaped by God’s Word.
Think with me about the idea of eternity being set in our hearts…it seems to be a foreign concept in our post modern, consumer driven, instant gratification culture. Yet, in every heart, is a longing and an appreciation for that which is beyond or outside of the human “experience”.

Let me illustrate. This past spring, my wife and I had the fortune of spending a few days in Washington DC, where she was good enough to humour my lifelong obsession to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The place was filled with adults and children viewing pieces of aviation history such as The Wright Brothers first plane, Skylab 1 (which we got to walk though- very interesting), Spitfire fighter planes from the second world war. Apollo Rockets from the moon missions. The building obviously, is rather large with high ceilings to accomodate both the size of the displays and the nature of the displays: in this environment, it is obviously rather easy for sound to both carry and be amplified. However, there were two places inside this building where I was reminded of the eternity that we all have set in our hearts by the reaction of the viewers:
Firstly, on a small scale, it was interesting to note adults over the age of about 35 become very quiet and contemplative when they looked at the SS-20 and its Soviet equivalent, intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles. To those people who had lived in the heyday of these marvels engineering with the ability to annihilate the entire human race, it was obvious that they remembered what life was like in a world where you talked about building your own fall out shelters and the newspapers were filled with such noble political principles as mutually assured destruction, the idea that if either the US or The Soviet Union attacked each other in a nuclear manner, the logical consequence would be nuclear war for all. It becomes less difficult to have eternity in your heart when you live each day with a known threat of destruction.

Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, was the reaction in Gallery 5….where it was extraordinarily quiet, and even children whispered. Everyone’s reaction was quiet awe, wonder, and very obviously contemplation. The gallery was filled with an exhibit called Beyond – by an artist named Micheal Bensen. In a very fascinating way, Bensen has taken millions of frames of photos taken by various NASA and put them together to build panoramas of places such as IO – one of the moons of Jupiter, or images of Saturns rings etc, but so real and so closeup that it almost appears that you are there. Images like this, or images of the earth from space, obviously provided everyone with a different perspective on their existence. As we looked at these images and noted the common reaction of awe of everyone in the gallery, three thoughts went through my mind. First, the common response screams of the eternity that is set in the heart of every man, just as we saw in Ecclesiastes. Secondly, Psalm 19:1 tells us to whom the awe and the wonder should be directed :The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. (Psalm 19:1 NASB)
Thirdly, it was a reminder there for everyone of the existence of God and his visible plan for each person’s life. I was reminded that each person there would be held accountable for what they had seen, as it testified to God. Romans 1:20 tells us that For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20 NASB)

How does being created for eternity relate to Christmas…

We find the answer in the divinely inspired writings of the Apostle Paul, when he gives us a number of key truths about Christ that impact our lives at Christmas:

First: in verse 10 we see that He completes us, and has the rule over us
Second, in verse 11 we learn that he can remove the fleshly desires from us
Thirdly, verse 13 tells us that we have been made alive together with HIm, because he forgave our sins
Fourthly, and most importantly, he gives us the perspective or context for festivals, new moons and Sabbath days, that is, a way to celebrate the special days in our calendar in a way that acknowledges Him as the Lord and Master of our lives.
Paul points out to us here that these things are a shadow – a shadow of something that is to come in the future, but the substance,m or the reality belongs to Christ, and is Christ (in him dwelt the fulness of Deity in bodily form).

Let’s contrast the idea of substance versus shadow for a few minutes:

1. what is a shadow
2. what creates a shadow

So, if our festivals or times of celebration are the shadow of the substance of Christ, what does this mean in our lives.

Can I hug a shadow? Can I hold a shadow?
But yet, I can enjoy it, as long as I take my meaning from the substance, not the shadow.

As humans, we are quick to take the meaning from the substance, and to get our priorities inverted. That is the natural result of not having an eternal perspective. 1 Corinthians 13:12 tells us: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face, now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. Let’s look at how we keep this perspective focused on what the fulness or the substance is:

Author Randy Alcorn said that ” As believers, many of us habitually think and act as if there is no eternity..We major in the momentary and minor in the momenteous. We tend to look at Christmas and say “thats it?” when its all over whenever we’ve looked at it only as the celebration of the mystery of the incarnation, God becoming flesh and dwelling among us, without also looking it as the shadow of something that we only see dimly, that desire all of us have to spend eternity in the presence of our Creator God. Christmas is prophecy, not just history.

Let’s look at another example of this shadow/substance dichotomy…..and please don’t take this illustration out of context.
Ephesians 5 talks about another shadow that we often see in our society, that of marriage:

starting at verse 22

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, (Ephesians 5:22-29 NASB)

You see, marriage is the shadow, not the substance. And yet God, when he looked at creation, said it was very good….so don’t take me as disparaging marriage here. But rather, I want to point out that marriage is the example of this substance shadow dichotomy exactly because it illustrates it so well.

When you look for your spouse to provide the meaning or validation that only God can give, you will be disappointed.
when you look to your spouse for the perfect response to your deeds and actions, you will be disappointed . When you look for your marriage to provide meaning for your life, you will live for the shadow, not for the substance. The shadow will always disappoint, the substance never will. The parallels go on and on….

But

Romans 1:25 tells us : For the exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever.

You see, part of having eternity set in our hearts means that we are naturally drawn to looking to celebrations to bring joy and meaning to our lives, then spend time frustrated with what happens when those unbridled expectations slam full speed into the cold hard hand of reality.

Lets see what this looks like at Christmas time:
I want to look at 5 seasonal activities that all of us anticipate, and yet, if most of us are willing to be honest with ourselves, all of us have been disappointed by. My prayer is that we can develop a right framework in which to place these activities, so that everything that we do this Advent season can be done to the glory of God, the furtherence of his Kingdom, and draw us closer to the fulfillment that we find in the substance.

1. Food –
2. Family and Friends
3. Worship
4. Presents/Anticipation
5. Time away from work

Each of these activities are shadows that point us to the substance, the fulfillment that we have in Christ. Looking at them one by one:

1. Food- what do you think about when you think about food at Christmas? Gathering around a table that is full of goodness, as well as the hunger pangs that shoot through your stomach as you wait for the lengthy blessing to be asked for the meal. In itself, the meal reminds us of two elements of God and his creation:
1. that we hunger and desire fulfillment: – is a reminder of the appetite that each of us are called to have for the things of God’s kingdom ” Matthew

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6 NASB)

Secondly, we are reminded of what the true purpose is of meals in Christian community – they achieve many things. They express so much of God’s grace, they provide a glimpse of what it is like to live under God’s reign. They express and reinforce the community that Christ has created through the cross. They are the foretaste of a new creation.
But they are not “for” any of these things

Tim Chester, in his book ” A Meal with Jesus” says that “Everything else, creation, redemption, mission is “for” this- that we might eat together in the presence of God. The Israelites were redeemed to eat with God on the mountain , turn with me to Isaiah for a prophetic picture of the ultimate Christmas dinner.

The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;
A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,
And refined, aged wine. And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples,
Even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time,
And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces,
And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth;
For the LORD has spoken. And it will be said in that day,
“Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.” (Isaiah 25:6-9 NASB)

We are also redeemed for the great messianic banquet with Christ, in Revelation 19:9

Then he *said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.'” And he *said to me, “These are true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9 NASB)

As we gather to feast during this Christmas season, use every gathering time as an oppportunity to remind you of the substance – our end with Christ at the marriage supper with the Lamb. When its just another meal, you will leave with your stomach full and your heart empty.

Family and Friends
The second thing we look forward to during the holiday season is the opportunity to gather and reconnect with family and friends. This too, provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our eternal purpose.
What images do you think of when you think of gathering with family and friends? Typically, its an opportunity to share deep conversation with people who truly care about you. Yet many of us, will admit that our family gatherings are not all flowers and sunshine. There are old hurts, new scars and oversensativities that rear their heads wherever we gather. Our hearts are always pained when we spend time with those who are dear to us who have deliberately turned their backs on the freedom that you offer to each one of us. Yet God’s word shows us that the time with family and friends that we spend here on earth is only a poor pattern, or imitation of what we are called to in heaven.

How many of you have a family dinner this week? How do you usually define it? Usually its a Gerber dinner, or a Martin dinner or something of that type.

Turn with me to Ephesians 3:14-15 – For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, (Ephesians 3:14, 15 NASB) – one day we will be called to a family gathering where we will all be known by the name of God our Father. Doesn’t that make our family gatherings a reminder of that which is to come – shadow and substance yet again.
And look at the definition of family -But He answered and said to them, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:21 NASB)

Part of the idea of Christmas is the idea of going home- think about songs like I’ll Be Home for Christmas and others. As someone who lived far from “home” for a few years, I can relate to that sentiment. That inherent longing in every human heart is a longing for a home that is in the presence of God.

Look at the promise in John 14:23

Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. (John 14:23 NASB), where Christ himself promises that he will make His home with us.

That desire to be home for Christmas is really the eternity inside our hearts beating for our eternal home…..think about that the next time you anticipate crossing the threshold of your parent’s house, or wait for your children to come “home” for Christmas.

Worship
At Christmas time, we anticipate special worship services, song services, children’s programs, messages that capture the awe and the wonder of God’s Son as a baby in a manger. We enjoy services where the spirit of God moves in our hearts, making the corporate worship seem more intimate and moving then times when we bring our own agendas to worship.
These commemorative services feed that longing for THE worship service, that place where we worship God in person, in His presence forever and ever
And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” (Revelation 5:13 NASB)

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying,
“Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12 NASB)

I don’t believe that I’m overstepping my bounds when I say that when we are part of that great multitude, we will look back at our worship on earth, and realize how we were tangled in the shadows, and reaching for the substance. Our hearts long to worship a Christ we can see, when our walking by faith, not by sight has been vindicated.

Presents and Anticipation
How many of you have been at a Christmas function where the children present are asking for their gifts before their shed the first layer of their winter wear? Or Bug Grandpa and Grandma all the way through the Christmas meal while their parents cringe at the lack of tact that their children have in looking for handouts from gullible relatives?

how many of you have thought of that unbridled expectation as an example to emulate?

You see, all of us enjoying both giving, and if we are willing to admit it, receiving gifts. There is something about that thrill of anticipation when you are removing the wrapping paper from a present that can’t quite be described. At the same time, as a giver of a gift, there is nothing like a reaction of genuine pleasure from the receipient of a gift. Knowing that someone likes the gift you got them validates your selection of the gift.

Yet, at Christmas, we tend to focus on the presents that we can see and touch, rather than the present that each of us has been given, freely.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 NASB)
Does your Christmas celebration reflect that the ultimate gift has already been given and is essentially waiting for each of us to claim the awe and wonder of its substance? Unlike the shadow gifts, this one doesn’t need new batteries, however, some assembly (and a lot of fine tuning) by the Maker of the Universe is required.
More importantly, when you see children opening presents this Christmas (or breathlessly describing the awe and wonder of it all to their friends), I challenge each of you to look forward to your home and your gift with the same kind of reckless abandon. We should be pursuing our eternal home with the father the same way the father of the prodigal son welcomed his Son home….saw him a far way off, ran to him, and embraced him…..Is our horizon short sighted, or are we looking for those things which are a far way off…..do we run to Christ, or do we think that passionately pursuing a growing relationship with Christ makes us look “weird ” to our fellow congregants? Most of all, are you like a small child at Christmas when you think about the gift of salvation that God gave us through his Son, and the eternal home he has promised us.

Lastly, we look forward to time away from work, or time spent in relaxation.
This too, is a shadow rather than substance. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take time off from work during the holidays, but rather want to point out the experience that I’m sure the majority of us have had with vacations. How many people do you know who came back from vacation who said it was too long? No, the typical response is that it was “too short”. You can take off the entire time from Christmas until New Years, and still end up with a feeling of disappointment when you go back to work in January. This is not because you didn’t enjoy your vacation, but rather because inevitably, all of us are disappointed by what we did not accomplish or get to enjoy or experience during our time away from work.
Christ tells us that we will desire that rest, but that the only true rest will be found in him.

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NASB)

in the words of Augustine of Hippo, who lived more than 1500 years ago, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”.

May the time that we spend away from the cares of work during this holiday season point us to the ultimate rest.

In conclusion, We dread Christmas because of the empty experience, and the sense of disappointment that we can allow to ruin not just this time of the year, but our entire lives, when we allow the regret of what I have not accomplished or experienced to swallow up the magnitude of the grace and mercy of God that saved me. This Christmas season, you will be bombarded with shadows…..use them to look to the substance. When Christmas is the end, it will always disappoint. When you and I use it as a reminder of what is to come, it becomes the reason for “our lively hope”.

Where is your hope this Christmas?

And if you are still reading:

You now know where the name of this particular obscure corner of the blog universe comes from.

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