“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.