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The manger is where the magic is


Those words came out of her mouth while we were talking in a church hallway one December. I just about fell over from surprise. Aren’t Christians supposed to go gaga over Christmas? Anyone who shows up at one of our church services or concerts will experience a sensory overload of lights, music, messages of hope, pageantry, and red/green/gold/white everywhere. How can you not love this time of year? The kids are so adorable. The traditional carols are so evocative, tying you to every Christmas you’ve ever celebrated. The huge tree still thrills.

She didn’t love it. In fact, she hated it. “I get seriously depressed every year at this time. I’m divorced and alone. I have no children. Everybody else has family to be with. Mine live hundreds of miles away, and we’re not all that close anyway. I hate to see everybody around me seem so happy when I feel so miserable. On the 25th I will probably stay in my silent apartment, draw the blinds, and start in on the vodka at 11:30 A.M.”

You know, I doubt that people in the congregation had any idea of her misery. She put on a reasonably cheerful front on Sunday mornings, and she probably wished she hadn’t shown that weakness and blurted out yuletide heresy in front of her pastor. But there it was. I had the presence of mind to mumble an invitation to our home to share some family time, but of course she declined.

The problem

Over the years I’ve run into other people who were dreading the approach of Christmas. One dad told me that because of some financial reversals he didn’t think he could “give Christmas” to his kids. He judged himself harshly because he feared that he would disappoint his family and look like a failure as a parent. A woman told me she dreaded the holidays because the pressure and frenzy of present buying and wrapping, entertaining, and guilt-induced travel on top of her demanding job always left her exhausted and empty instead of glowing.

How could a festival so joyful become so painful to some? I think one reason is because our culture has invested these holidays with such massive expectations. We expect magic every year. We expect perfection and assume that everybody around us expects perfection of us.

Notice a pattern here? Dysfunction sets in when everything is about me. What am I going to get out of the holidays? How will I perform for others? How will I be judged? Am I up to making the magic happen? Will there be magic for me? Or will this whole month leave me empty?

The solution

What if we put our principal energy and focus where it belongs—worshiping the Christ who came to our broken world to rescue us. The incarnation of the Son of God is a fabulous gift to the world. Christ came in person, as a human, as one of us, so that the gift of his life would enable him 33 years later to give us the gift of life and forgiveness. The manger is where the magic is!

Some humble shepherds got it right over two thousand years ago:

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child. (Luke 2:13-17)

Those unnamed shepherds, working third shift in a lowly job few would envy, had an opportunity to meet the King of kings and Lord of lords. The job they were doing that night might have been lowly, but it was important. A flock of sheep is a huge capital investment. Did they own their own flock, or were they only stewards of someone else’s investment? Did they leave one guy behind, or did they all go? Who knows. The point is, they made time to connect with the Christ. They were not offended by the humility of the Savior, born a human being to humble parents, born not in a palace but in an animal shelter. They could not help sharing their wonder and excitement with people in their lives.

This month, I hope you follow the shepherds’ lead and meet your Savior at the manger. Make full use of your congregation’s worship, study, and service opportunities. To help your family focus on the Christ in Christmas, you also can add your own simple ways of worship in your home with special Scripture readings, singing, prayers, personal Christmas reflections, and stories. Advent calendars, with a prayer and song each day, are a wonderful way to enjoy the December countdown. Your children or grandchildren can be commissioned to do a series of drawings for your fridge of the great figures in the nativity story.

More practical tips

So—are you feeling joyful or stressed with the holidays coming? Here are some suggestions for being intentional with your month and refusing to let Satan the Grinch steal your Christmas joy:

  • Be in control of your schedule this December. Decide what you can handle and say no to anything more. No guilt. No shame.
  • In these last days before celebrating Jesus’ birth, look around where you work, the neighborhood where you live, the people in the pews near you. Some people sitting there, whose smiles you can assume are fake, grow more miserable by the day and can’t wait for Christmas to be over. Find the energy for some extra kindness to the mortals around you this month.
  • If you are hosting a family gathering, do your best and then enjoy the day. Get enough sleep the night before so you aren’t exhausted and frazzled and barking at your helpers. After doing your best, decide that your preparations are good enough. So what if everything isn’t perfect? Enjoy the people. Thank your heavenly Father for all the good things you have.
  • Don’t let pressure or guilt push you into more gift buying and card sending than you are willing and able to do. Do it only if it brings you joy.
  • If your family finances are stressed, don’t hate on yourself because you can’t buy everything you want. Deep down inside, what your kids really want is not more stuff but more of you. Spend not money but time and make lifetime memories.

You can’t “give Christmas” to your kids—or yourself. Jesus has already given us all the Christmas we really need.

Author: Mark Jeske
Volume 109, Number 12
Issue: December 2022

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