How to Receive Christmas Magic

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go…” I’ve heard those lyrics crooned in every department store in every town and city of this country. Ad nauseam. Any time I realize that I should really get some Christmas shopping done and I walk into the mall there is a faint chance that some shuck with a PA system will play those lyrics. And then I’ll feel like popping a Buble.

But underneath my old man’s cantankerous demeanor is a child who realizes this truth – that Christmas is a special time of year whether or not you’re religious. It’s been that way for most of the English speaking world. And it’s increasingly exported to other unfamiliar countries. In Japan, they celebrate Christmas with KFC. Upon tasting some mince pies or seeing a neighborhood lit up under the night sky, I remember that there was something magical in that December air. There was the damp air of Kuala Lumpur next to the Christmas tree. There was that chilly and sharp gust that blew across Shanghai’s Bund.

God knows we’ve outgrown believing in magic. But every Christmas seems like people want to relive these childhood illusions or drug themselves into doing so until they forget that fateful day they realized that Santa didn’t exist. Then they can play and pretend it’s all for the kids. Or is it? How can such desires come from illusions?

The yearning for something magical reminds me of the insights we have after finishing a book and scaling the peak of some great mountain and staring into the expanse of the starry starry night. It’s the yearning for the transcendent – a desperate desire for a time and space that exists outside this world yet can only be found in it.

In it, the divorce never happened. The kids are quiet and happy. The family is united around the dinner table. The turkey and the gravy blend together in perfect harmony, each flavor enhancing the other. Not just that but on a Christmas night, the inanimate world finally becomes what humans have always thought it to be – magical and personal. Reindeer speak. Old men climb down chimneys and leave half eaten cookies and milk. Jack Frost greets us at the windows. Whether it is before us like Eden or beyond us like heaven, we crave a taste of it with the ones we love on Christmas and with the world’s creatures.

But then the turkey sucks away the moisture of your mouth and mom and dad end the night screaming at one another again and your uncle is drunk from too much wine. You can’t help but feel just as Sylvia Plath did. “I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas.” Is that all there is? Is that all there is? I’ve often asked God that very same question. Every Christmas over promises and under delivers like some cheap motel. The cynical of us just get on with the show. We hope the whisky can drown out the fake smiles and presents.

God’s answer has always befuddled me. A good father meets his kids where they are. If they want to build a robot, he’ll make one alongside them rather than give a lecture about mechatronic engineering. So 2000 years ago God answered our yearning not by giving us more rules as ladders to heaven…but by reaching down into something wholly other to him. He became a man. There was no fire and smoke. There was just a crying baby in Bethlehem in a manger with no cradle for a bed. In the most mundane of all things, eternity entered time and the infinite became finite.

Christmas is special. Because the incarnation is special. God answers us in the most paradoxical way. He doesn’t get rid of our yearning just giving us what we want but what we need. We don’t make things magical. He does. So the beauty and meaning of Christmas can only be received by knowing him. 2000 years ago he met us in a little Jewish boy. He was born in darkness so that the world might know light. He was lowly so that he might lift us high. I don’t need to grasp in the dark anymore, hoping for that Christmas spark. It’s already there. I just need to see it and receive it. If God became man, everything is possible. We just need to see it. Every Christmas we don’t need the gift of having more but seeing more. Because even a manger can reveal him.

Being A Good Person Cannot Make Up For The Wrong We Do: Why I love that God needed to become a man

The weird habit all humans have

We just can’t help ourselves. Like impulsive children, we just can’t help feeling bad whenever we do something wrong. And we can’t stop trying to make up for it. And if we find that we can’t? Well despair sets in like quick cement, our guilty conscience eating away at us like termites underneath timbers. We have a deeply personal knowledge of wrongs, more than just an intellectual assent. When we see wrongs committed against us or others, our hearts cry out for reparation. That’s part of what makes us human. And the reason why it’s a part of being human is because God created humans to be his image, including his justice.

Our weird habit is evidence of a damaged product

Just as every object was created with a purpose, as humans, we were made in the image of God, designed to honor God by obeying and enjoying him forever. But our conscience assures us we have fallen way short of that. We are prone to do what’s wrong, especially when we’re told we can’t do something. The very thought of being prohibited from something itches away at us. Our moral compasses are broken and we’re scrambling around like ants trying to fix it. So when we act selfishly, if we recognize it, we’ll apologize and promise to do better next time, hoping that’ll resolve our guilt. Unfortunately our consciences don’t seem to work that way. Like a bank account, each wrong committed is a withdrawal on our balance, gradually accumulating more and more debt in our account as we age. It is no wonder that old men are some of the most regretful people in the world.

Being good is overrated

But God is a person of infinite beauty and value. Therefore obeying and enjoying him is the highest good. That means every transgression is a cosmic crime of eternal and infinite proportion. It is like choosing to eat your own feces over lobster. If God says not to eat something, we ought not to eat it even at the cost of all the universe and multiple universes more. The penalty for such a crime then is something greater than the whole amount of our obligations. The penalty requires a payment of infinite value because it has been committed against an infinite being. How then can being good absolve our guilt when it is merely being what we were made to be? It seems that the history of ethics has vastly overrated its credit value.

The solution: a bail out by God

Religions are implicitly aware of this, which is why the story of the world’s religions is one in which the debt is attempted to be remedied since they all know the accounts will have to be settled one day. The problem is that with the exception of Christianity, religions rituals, superstitions and self-help practices have worked only to temporarily suppress our guilt. Let’s not kid ourselves. Our selfishness is an enormous crime and if not for God’s restraints, would be hell on earth. No, the only thing that would make reparation for a life lived in defiance of its infinitely valuable giver, is an eternal and infinitely more valuable life than any human being could offer.

If our hope is in ourselves, our will to power, or our ability to create our own meaning with our choices, then we are of all people the most to be pitied. Living the good life by ourselves is the feeble attempt of a toddler to beat his dad in basketball. The dam of our disappointments and guilt will eventually break its banks and crush us with the weight of its condemnation when we realize we cannot live the life we so desperately want to. The end of living for one’s self is despair not freedom. And the end of despair is death, not life.

Only God can give himself something that is more valuable than the whole universe. And there is nothing that is more valuable than all existence but himself. But it is man who owes the debt. So God the author of life, entered life himself as a character – the man Jesus, so that he might pay man’s debt with his own life. It was life that had existed from eternity. And it was life that was infinitely more valuable than anything else. It was a life through whom, to whom and for whom, all things were made. Only the life and death of Jesus could remedy our guilt because only as a human could he represent us, and only as God could his life be of infinite worth. And because he was of infinite worth, his payment is sufficient for every person who desires to have their guilt washed, their conscience cleansed and their life restored – as his eternal image. This is why I love that God had to become man.