By Tim Casey, Spiritual Life Coordinator, Isaac Newton Christian Academy
I love Christmas. I always have. I took my family out to buy a Christmas tree this weekend and loved every minute of it. Without the Christmas season the errand would’ve seemed a nightmare. Who wants to stand out in the cold looking over a bunch of evergreens trying to find the one with the smallest bare spots only then to wrestle it to the top of your car, drag it through your front door, and spend an hour getting it set up and adjusted to look just right? But I do love the whole Christmas season. The lights and smells. Bing Crosby singing White Christmas. My kids’ cold noses on my warm neck and my wife standing under mistletoe. And even though I think it’s sad that American marketers have found ways to ‘package’ Christmas, and cheapen it by doing so, I still look forward to giving and receiving brightly wrapped gifts on December 25th. There is a romanticized feel to December that I haven’t found anywhere else in my calendar.
I do, however, think that Christmas brings with it a need to be cautious. While the family gatherings and cultural traditions are full of nostalgia and merriment, I’ve found that I need to be careful about how I understand and appreciate the birth of Christ. For 31 Christmases now I have been hearing the story of a baby in a manger. I have set up nativity scenes and sung the Christmas hymns. I even learned to pronounce the names Augustus and Quirinius from an early age. But at some point in my life, I think the romanticism of our culture’s Christmas bled over into the 1st century reality of the Roman Empire. I’m afraid Luke chapter 2 became more of a prop in Charlie Brown’s Christmas special than the introduction of my savior and king. I don’t think it was bad that the story became familiar, but perhaps that it became too cozy. Because Roman spears aren’t really tipped with felt and baby boys really can be murdered. When I read the story now, as a husband and father, thinking about fleeing to a foreign country in the night with my wife and newborn baby doesn’t sound as pleasant as sipping cocoa and watching the snow fall.
I remember when I was in high school, starting to feel like December was ‘losing its magic’. I couldn’t really understand why at the time. I was starting to think that the Christmas season was for little kids and that I had outgrown it. And perhaps I was a little bit right. I had outgrown Christmas, or at least the Christmas I was used to celebrating. I was too big to write to Santa or open up toys on Christmas morning. The whole season starts to look like it’s meant for kids and then when you’re too old, it’s about remembering the holidays of your youth. Longing for how things used to be. But memories tend to fade around the edges over the years, not come into clearer focus.
It wasn’t until a few years later that Christmas started stirring something deeper in my heart again. Some breath came over the dying embers and they began to glow a little brighter. And the odd part about it was that it didn’t happen in December. It wasn’t time to hang lights and the weather was far from frightful. In fact it had nothing to do with the nostalgia or cozy feelings of Christmas. Very simply it had to do with Christ. It was when I came to appreciate Jesus in the flesh, the Incarnation and the fact that he was just as human as me or you. I had always known that Jesus was fully God, but not thinking of him as fully human made me miss something vitally important in the nativity story. So when I started to know and love the flesh and blood Jesus, his story as a baby fascinated me. In fact, it moved me. Not because I hadn’t heard it before, but because I never put it into the grit and grime of reality. When the story had become romanticized, I think it lost its relevance. On the other hand, when I read about the birth of Jesus in its backdrop of reality, I realized that Christmas isn’t about wishing for Christmas past and simpler times. It’s about a new beginning. And for me that changed everything. The birth of a savior isn’t just cute; it gives a thrill of hope. It gives a weary world every reason to rejoice.
I’ve heard people describe their own process of losing the magic of Christmas. It’s usually adults but lately I’ve been hearing it more from my students too, which I think is very sad. It makes their youth seem to fade. Or maybe it’s their hope. Either way, I know the answer is not to watch more Christmas movies and decorate more trees. Those can be great things and I look forward to the Christmas traditions every year. But it’s still not the answer. If you ask the question, “Why do we celebrate Christmas?”, I think the only answer that can give true joy, year after year, for the rest of this life and the life to come is, “because it’s the birth of our king.” I hope all of my students have a merry Christmas, but not just because they get the presents they want. I hope it’s because they learn to celebrate the King that they need.
Tim Casey lives in Cedar Rapids with his wife, Shauna and their three children. Mr. Casey teaches Jr. High/High School Bible class and serves as the school’s Spiritual Life Coordinator.