It must be Christmastime. Lights are going up. Baking is going on. People are coming over. The breathless bustle over Jesus’ birthday has begun again.
And the Christian embarks on his annual search for a saner way to celebrate the season.
It is sad that those who have the most to celebrate should so often come out of Christmas with more a sense of survival than anything else. Invariably it happens.
Added to the ordinary expectations of office parties and house decorations, the conscientious Christian finds himself burdened with extra choir practices, prolonged program rehearsals, and special church outreaches that help him to come across as the perfect picture of panic on this festival of peace.
One’s initial response is to quit celebrating Christmas altogether. Some have. And if celebrating Christ’s coming leaves us frazzled and fizzled, perhaps we had best not celebrate it anymore.
Jesus continually condemned empty activity. I wonder if He were to step onto the stage of some of our professional efforts to honor” His name, would He not be more than a little uncomfortable?
While the parts are memorized to perfection and recited with precision, the Sunday school program director has lost three nights’ sleep, two close friends and one expensive angel’s costume over the whole affair. And she is backstage right now bawling Johnny out for stepping on “Mary’s” shawl and for leaving his shepherd’s crook in the bathroom just when the angel is about to come down the rope (in a rented outfit).
When the curtain collapses to the strains of “heavenly peace,” so does she, and vows, “That’s the last time I’ll ever do anything at Christmas.”
In the midst of such monstrous hypocrisy, would you blame Jesus if He walked out of His own birthday party?
Yet from the record of Christ’s first coming two age-old symbols emerge to remind us that in the very height of pandemonium we may still celebrate the Savior’s birth with peace and propriety.
The stable and the star speak of qualities men ought to see in us at this season. They speak of things we can still stand for at Christmas. They offer four watchwords with which to guard our attitudes and guide our activities this Christmas.
First, the stable stands for simplicity in the midst of sophistication. There is an unmistakable aura of arrogance about Augustus’ call for a world census. An expanding empire with a genius for road building was threatening to turn the Mediterranean Sea into a Roman lake. There was reason to celebrate. Rome reveled in her prowess and the accounting provided a proud occasion to parade her power.
Set in contrast to the sophisticated machinery of Roman rule, the story a handful of simple shepherds tried to peddle in the streets of Bethlehem made unimpressive copy. That is why the stable speaks so well of simplicity in the midst of sophistication.
The parallels with our Christmases are only too obvious. All about us men scramble to outdo last year’s circus with television specials that lengthen the season and weaken the content of Christmas, always adding new and more fashionable wrinkles to the old familiar story.
Against the sophistication of today’s celebrations the Christian is reminded of the simplicity of the stable event. There should be about our celebration of the season a continuing spirit of simplicity—in our eating, in our programming, in our entertaining, in our spending.
Set simplicity as a watchword over your Christmas activity this year. Resist the pressure to keep doing something different (by which we usually mean something more elaborate, more extravagant, more expensive).
Excess does not characterize the Christ we preach. The way we act at Christmas should reflect the Christ we preach and serve. Will it be with increasing sophistication or deliberate simplicity?
The stable also stands for serenity in the midst of activity.
It is not hard to imagine the scene in Bethlehem the night of Christ’s birth. The town was crammed with people. Relatives were enjoying raucous reunions.
There is no reason to believe that the boisterous scene in the village inn was any different from that of a typical holiday weekend in any tavern today. Every segment of society was represented by the crowd.
It must certainly have been anything but a “holy night” for the masses who congregated. In fact, the stable was a welcome refuge from the stormy sea of people and parties.
As a child I attended country gatherings where gossip flowed thick and fast, tables were overloaded and kids were tearing the house apart. I saw men who, having had enough of it all, retreated at last to the peace and quiet of the barn. I understand full well how at times a barn can be a beautiful place.
Activity is the curse of Christmas, not because it is wrong but because it makes us insensitive to what is right about the celebration.
We can fuss and fume over such silly, frilly things! There is chaos in the kitchen if the sauce is not just so. And the gift-giving rituals have become so elaborate we need computers to remember how much to spend on Aunt Sally so as not to outgive Uncle Harold or undergive Aunt Clara (both eventualities could result in full-scale family feuding).
“But it wouldn’t be Christmas without a turkey,” we protest, so the poor bird is unceremoniously stuffed in preparation for our own annual stuffing. And it would not be Christmas without the staff party, the carol singing, the tree trimming, the gifts, the lights, a Sunday school program.
Oh, yes, it would! Jesus told the Pharisees they were invalidating the Word of God by their traditions. We are doing the same to His birthday. There is plenty of activity but very little serenity.
The stable speaks of serenity, not inertia. In the hectic pre-Christmas preparation around our church I have heard people say, “I’ll be glad when it’s over,” and I have wished I could cancel Christmas altogether.
It is then that I must remind myself there was some beautiful blessed activity in the stable that night. The difference was the serene spirit that pervaded the place. Retreat is not the solution.
Anchor your Christmas activity in the peaceful presence of the Prince of Peace and you will weather the swirling storm of activity about you this season. May the serenity of the stable serve as a watchword over your celebrations this year.
The star that shone above the stable also speaks of qualities that can characterize our Christmases. It has always symbolized certainty in the midst of confusion.
In a sea of stars this one stood out with remarkable brilliance. It compelled the wise men to act. They came with confidence because they had seen the star.
In the midst of a great deal of speculation over the coming of the Messiah, and enough confusion to upset the entire city of Jerusalem, the wise men moved with assurance.
There is unquestionable confusion surrounding our contemporary Christmas. The mad activity is only a dim reflection of the confusion of spirit that overshadows the scene. Many voices proclaim a multitude of messiahs.
At this special time the Christian ought to stand out with clarity, like that solitary star. He should not be as one of the millions lost in the last-minute lineups and shopping-cart chaos, but as an unmistakable beacon of certainty in the center of all the confusion.
The Christian cannot afford to opt out of the chaos of the occasion. Removing the only sane person from the disheveled scene of an accident just contributes to the problem.
The Christian should view Christmas as his unique opportunity to let his light shine before men in the midst of their hysterical holidaying. Thus they may see his happy, holy activity and glorify his Father in heaven. He, above all, knows what Christmas is about, and he should show it.
When the wise men saw the star “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Confidence inspires joy. Knowing the Christ who came at Christmas as your Savior and trusting Him with all your life can give you the quiet certainty that will enable you to exude an appealing and enthusiastic joy in the very heart of the Christmas crush.
Finally, the star stands for significance in the midst of senselessness. It was the star that “went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.” The star not only stood out with clarity, but it stood over where the Christ Child lay. It pointed directly to Him as the center of attention.
At just the right moment God sent His Son into the world to offer hope and help. Israel’s hopes had faded, with their national confidence crushed under the heel of a foreign emperor. God’s promises to His people were all but forgotten. Life was a drudgery and the future uncertain. It was then God signaled the coming of His Son by pointing a star at Jesus Christ.
There ought to be the same “point” to all our Christmas activity. There is such little point to so much that happens on this holiday. For many it is nothing more than a good excuse to party, with the real reason for celebrating so obscured no one even stops to ask why anymore.
For millions today, Christmas is a meaningless celebration. Only Christians can reverse that direction. Our activities can point to Christ-centered worship in the middle of man-centered celebration.
Many seek token satisfaction in a fraudulent form of worship. Herod, too, had perverted plans to “come and worship him.”
Behind the facade of carols and cardboard nativity scenes on the mantel there is often little sense of the true significance of it all—that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. Here is fresh motivation for our mission. Many on the tiresome treadmill of tradition are looking for answers.
Our celebration of Christmas reflects the kind of Christ we proclaim. Let these vivid visual symbols of the season be a reminder of the watchwords that will guard our attitudes and guide our activities this Christmas.
Let there be the simplicity and the serenity of the stable.
And let there be the certainty and the significance of the star that points to the Prince of Peace.
Editor’s Note: This article, reprinted by permission, appeared in The Alliance Witness, December 12, 1979. At that time Rev. Richard Reichert and his wife were newly appointed missionaries to Ecuador.