Most families have a void in their Christmas celebrations. It may be that someone who was once there is now gone, or perhaps relational strains distance one another. Whatever it is, it leaves a hole in the gatherings and gift-giving. It is often tough, then, to truly hear the words sung in the carols because most of the songs are centered on the theme of joy.
Multiply that void with consumerism's takeover of Christmas, and the sorrows continue to build. Often expectations are high but finances are low, or the sheer number of gifts needed to celebrate makes the mind swim. Such seems to be the centerpiece of the modern Christmas tradition. Of course, the need for more gifts is not equal to the loss of a loved one or family relational strains, but it helps turn Christmas into a dreaded celebration. The question we must ask this Christmas is, “How can you and I reclaim joy as the central theme of Christmas?”
I could give a list of things to do—things like buying fewer gifts or thanking God for the family and friends you still have around you—but the chances of them causing true joy in your heart is slim. To reclaim joy, we must shift our perspective away from the modern consumerism and traditional sentiments of Christmas.
Some would say the best perspective is to forgo celebrating Christmas altogether. If that is your prerogative, have at it. But, for many throughout history, the celebration of Christmas means too much to forgo.
For many first-century Christians, Christmas (and Easter) helped to validate Christianity as an authentic religion in the eyes of the world. Further, Christmas was an evangelistic tool to call people to faith and repentance (not merely to get them to say "Merry Christmas!"). It was a celebration of Christ, an evangelistic tool, and an encouragement to the Church.
Romans 14:5-9 tells us that it matters not which days we hold in higher esteem than others (that is reserved to conscience); what matters is that we are in Christ. A Christ-centered focus at Christmas is the change our perspectives need in order for us to reclaim the joy of Christmas.
How do we get that joy? We reclaim the joy of Christmas not by the reminder of the events of Christmas, but by reminding ourselves why we need Christmas. In essence, we must start in the Garden of Eden, where Adam’s sin condemned his entire posterity. We must work our way through the Law where we find out how insurmountable the gap between God and us really is. Next, we must hear prophet after prophet proclaiming the promise of a greater saviour. There we must rest for some time. Otherwise, we will not feel in the depths of our hearts the excitement of the shepherds when the angels pronounced the good news for the first time.
We also reclaim the joy of Christmas by understanding who the baby in the manger really was. The idea of God becoming flesh seems too abstract to comprehend, and in a sense, it is. But, when we hear it in terms of Emmanuel, that is, God with us, the brightness of this glorious reality begins to shine into our hearts. Never before had God associated Himself so closely with His creation than in the form of the baby in the manger.
The importance of this is not apparent until we see Christ on the cross, dying in place of sinners. If Christ was only a man, His sacrifice would save Himself only, and He would be nothing more than an example for us to follow. If Christ was only God, death would not have touched Him, and He would not have paid our debt. Christ both took our sin and paid for it because He was truly God and truly man. Or, to put it in other words, the only reason Jesus's life, death, and resurrection save us is that He truly is Emmanuel.
Ponder the words of this twelfth-century Latin hymn,
O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And death's dark shadows put to flight Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
To truly celebrate Christmas is to celebrate it with heartfelt joy, not in great gifts nor pleasant family gatherings, but in Christ—in Emmanuel saving us from our sin.