Sometimes, I just need to break the routine. Do something unusual. Gain a new perspective. That can be especially true at Christmas…and I love Christmas! I turn on the Christmas music early. I love Elf. And It’s a Wonderful Life. And The Nativity Story. I use a real tree…and an artificial tree. Get the point? I enjoy Christmas!
In the midst of a busy season, though, it’s easy for the Christmas season to become routine and miss the annual opportunity to think deeply about Immanuel – “God with us.” Several years ago, I found myself at home alone one evening during the Christmas season. I turned on some music, lit up the tree, started a fire, and picked up a small book by Michael Card, Immanuel: Reflections on the Life of Christ. Here’s what I read:
Christmas is a struggle for my wife and me. Our ongoing war with the world seems to intensify as the decorations go up all over town. there is His name, in every window. Sometimes there is even a statue of His sweet infant body, lying in some straw with shepherds and wise men standing around with blank porcelain expressions. (I’ve always thought their faces convey the attitude of the world toward Christmas: blank, dazed, and bewildered.) If people today would just look at the birth of Jesus “straight on,” they would be puzzled that we should celebrate the horrific birth of a baby who was born to die. The contradictions should be more than the world can take. If Christianity could just be seen for what it is — a paradox and a mystery. The beginning in that dirty stable is one of the greatest mysteries: the plainness and greatness of Jesus, the grime and the glory. Wise men with gold in their hands and shepherds with sheep dung on their shoes. A smelly stable below and a shining star above. The birth of a gentle Lamb who was the fiercest Lion.
But the world doesn’t seem to struggle with these contradictions. They join in our season of celebration unruffled and oftentimes more joyful than we.
In an attempt to preserve some of this perspective, it is our family tradition to pile in the car and go to a real working barn, with horses in their stalls and a barn cat on the prowl for its prey amongst the hay bales. Together, we read the Christmas story by candlelight. The odor and the dark seem to press in against the fragile light of our candle. The horses stamp they feet against the cold and look at us sideways, as horses must, as if we were a little “off” for being there in the middle of the night.
The shabbiness of this setting reminds us of that other shabby place Jesus chooses everyday to be born: the human heart, a place more filthy and cold than any stable. All this comes so much closer to reality for us than the singing Christmas trees or the huge services. They may have their place and might become a genuine part of the real celebration, but not without the smell of the straw and the bewildered animals who seem almost about to speak. A baby and a barn. Only with these things can the celebration be truly complete.
It’s been many years since I read those words, and I’ve never made it to the barn. This year will be different. At Venture Church, we were dreaming about how Christmas could be a bit different this year. Out of the routine. Something unusual. A new perspective. A baby and a barn.
So we are making plans for a Christmas Eve gathering in a barn. It will be simple. It will be humble. It won’t smell like pine and cider. But we will gather in a barn to sing carols and read the Christmas story. And I hope some of us leave with a new appreciation of mystery – the grime and the glory – of Immanuel, “God with us.”