I am in search of a nativity set for my home. Somehow, between college holidays spent mostly at home where my mother’s nativity set graced our side table and roommates having their own sets, I have not embarked upon finding a nativity set for myself. This year, I began the search.
I didn’t think it would be too hard to find a nativity set that has realistic faces, in a barn with some faux moss on the roof, surrounded by a few token animals, a shepherd or two, the three wise men, and an angel. My budget is pretty small for this iconic piece of decor, but I figured I could pick up a reasonably nice set at a big box store like Michael’s Craft store. Last night, I did three loops of the Christmas section before I stopped a kind woman working at the store and asked her to point me in the right direction. We were standing between a large display of wired holiday ribbon and another large display of unique ornaments. The scent of cinnamon was in the air — not the overpowering cinnamon from those holiday pine cones, but the subtle smell of cinnamon tucked into a scented potholder. She paused for a moment, looked around, and said she didn’t think they carried them this year. I was stunned. How could this be? What is Christmas without a nativity set? What is Christmas without Jesus?
I came home and watched a few Christmas movies, resigned to shop online or pop across town to Hobby Lobby. As Cyndy Lou Lou sang a tune and wondered where Christmas went, I began to wonder, too. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is a fun and silly Christmas movie–who doesn’t love Jim Carrey slinking across the screen with his long hairy green fingers and toes–but it lands in an all too familiar Christmas story trope where the characters rediscover their need for love, family, community and a slower-paced life. I’m pretty sure every Hallmark movie follows this theme as well. Christmas is surely about celebrating the ones we love, reconciling and forgiving, and slowing down. It’s about enjoying hot chocolate from a local coffee shop, wandering through the Fab 40s neighborhood in Sac looking at Christmas lights with your friends, and finding the perfect gift for your best friend. But it’s also about Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong–this is not a rail against consumerism in America and how we have commercialized Christmas. I have no bitterness about holiday Costco lines, the lure of the Mall, or the bombardment of Christmas commercials on TV. My family doesn’t rack up long credit card bills to celebrate the season, and most of our gifts are handmade because we’re all so darn crafty. But I have found myself longing for something deeper and it’s barely December.
There are a lot of things in this world that remind us about the “spirit of Christmas,” but few remind us of the Spirit of Christ. While I’m not bitter about the commercialism of Christ, I am sensitive to the competition it creates in my calendar, in my heart, and in my mind for the holy celebration of the birth of Christ. Somehow, it seems easy to gather with friends, stress about gathering with family, don ugly Christmas sweaters, sing carols, and completely miss the holiness that overshadows this season. I have to be ever so intentional about carving time out in my life to pause, ponder, and reflect.
I must be intentional about wandering through the gospels, thinking about Mary’s unconventional journey into motherhood, Joseph’s internal struggle into fatherhood, and Jesus’ arrival. I often wonder why the inn was full when Joseph and Mary inquired for a room. Maybe this was normal, or maybe there was a great celebration going on. Whatever the reason, it’s interesting to note that the woman pregnant with the savior of the world was easily overlooked. Sometimes my heart feels the same way–just slightly distracted or caught up in day-to-day activities so that His gentle nudges are lost in the many pulls on my heart and time. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I’ve made it through many a holiday season without fully receiving Him.
Jesus was born to a virgin mother, in a barn, in fulfillment of divine prophecy. His birth marks the greatest testimony of God’s divine intervention in our lives, the fulfillment of his plan of salvation for our lives. We are reconciled to God through Christ, and His Holy Spirit dwells within us, all because a virgin mother birthed a sinless baby in a barn. It’s a beautiful and holy occasion. This is what I long to understand.
While Hallmark and Starbucks remind me to share the holiday cheer, the Church reminds me of the holy holiday calendar, which is meant to create a rhythm in our spiritual practice. At Christmas, we observe the incarnation, in the Spring we celebrate the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus. Many communities celebrate Pentecost Sunday in June, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and their followers after Jesus ascended into Heaven. This marks the birth of the Christian Church. And in between all of these holy holidays, we study the life of Jesus and God’s ways that are universally applicable to all of humanity.
Throughout the month of December, we celebrate Advent, which marks the coming of Christ. We recognize our need for God’s grace and presence in our lives. It’s a time of humility and thankfulness, as we realize the God of the universe came in human form so we would be intimately known by Him. It’s an intentional practice that helps remind us of the true meaning of the holiday season. It’s a point of access, of entry, into the mystery of Jesus.
Celebrate Advent by having a daily devotional time of prayer and reflection. If you use a Bible App like YouVersion, you can easily find Advent Bible reading plans that begin on December 1. Ann Voskamp wrote a beautiful book called The Greatest Gift, which is a devotional guide for the season of Advent. She offers the first chapter on her website for free, and she also has a children’s guide and free downloadable printables that you can use to engage your whole family. Her words draw you into the holy wonder of Christmas.
May your season be merry and bright and full of the wonder of our Savior.