I've never been a huge fan of Christmas. Go ahead, flog me, shun me, beat me, or kill me, but its just the truth. Like many other Christians, I don't like the materialism that has come along with it, the coveting and discontentment and fighting and bickering that results. I like Christmas trees in the church about as much as I like the American flag, I see both as icons that we have heightened to mean as much to us as the gospel itself, things that we have elevated to the point of making them idols, and therefore they should be abolished. But at its heart, even this is not the reason that I have not been a huge fan of Christmas.
I see Christian holidays as a manifestation of the desire humans seem to inherently possess for religious observance. Now I know that many of you will say that I am reading way too much into this, but all I have to say is consider the number of people who attend a Christmas Eve service or Easter Sunday service as compared to the rest of the year. Paul makes reference in Colossians, Romans, and Galatians to the freedom that Christians have to NOT observe holidays (which was in stark contrast to all the religions around them at the time) although in all of these places he never condemns the practice of observing holidays. So, like Paul, I neither condone nor reject holidays, but I simply feel that there is the tendency in holidays to become religiously legalistic and focused on things other than the gospel and Christ, so I detect a danger in them.
Having stated these things, this year I am required to plan music for the "Christmas season" and have had to prepare Advent readings. I originally dreaded this, the whole "Christmas season" tends to grate on me a bit, with the false "cheer" and "hope" that goes along with it, and I often feel that our society has progressed to the point and has taken over Christmas to the extent that Christians observance of Christmas is quickly becoming just another way of being "relevant" and of bending to the world rather than asking the world to bend to us.
As I thought more about it, though, I started to see the value of these things in a fresh and new light. Having prepared for advent at this point, and having thought through what it means and should mean to the Christian, I have come to see the following attributes of advent as valuable.
1) Advent is to remind us of the expectancy that the Jews pre-Christ had in looking forward to the Messiah. It is to remind us that, just as they were expectant that God would move and do things amongst them, we should be expectant of the hand of God in our lives, and of his immanent return. This expectancy has been lost for many Christians today.
2) I also see the value, as much as I resisted it at first, of turning the Church's focus from the culture to Christ. This is something that must be done every day of our lives, and it is not done by blindly ignoring the culture around us, but rather by carefully considering what we have come to believe about ourselves and our desires and then resubmitting ourselves to God and Scripture, repenting of the wrong beliefs we have had about what we deserve or even need and asking God to fill us with truth. In this way, I think that it can be appropriate to approach advent as a "counter-cultural" Christmas season.
3) The very essence of Christmas as a legalistic observance by many in our culture gives us opportunities to share the gospel. While we must be careful that we don't fall into the same traps, we should also join Paul in saying "but what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice." So no matter the motives of our culture in flooding our churches on Christmas Eve, we ought to rejoice in the gospel being preached.
Having said all of this, I decided to post the advent readings that I have written for our services for the next 4 weeks. These are meant to focus our hearts and minds on the meaning of Jesus coming to earth. In the coming weeks, allow yourself to meditate upon this man who had no place to lay his head, who gave up the comforts of heaven to come to earth, who humbled himself to the place of a servant, who gives us hope in things outside the material world in which we live. Allow yourself to step back from the busyness of our culture, and the passionate lusts that those around us submit themselves to, and instead to passionately lust after God, who is able to more fully fill you than anything else ever will. Don't forget God this Christmas season, but rather embrace him, love him, desire him, share him, and focus on him.
Enjoy the Christmas parties, and the fun of decorating, and the joy of giving and receiving presents, and the love of family and friends, and the hope of days off from work. But do not do these things as ends within themselves, but rather do them with your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the hand of the Father.