Today was Christmas Eve. I spent it driving an hour each way to and from my old church to fill in on bass for their Christmas Eve carols service before picking up my wife and son to begin two days of visiting family, giving and receiving presents and eating lots of food.
I generally love Christmas. I mean, I grew up loving Christmas and in many ways I still do. I love what it means and represents. I love the fact that after all the craziness in the lead up, people sort of relax for a few days. I love giving and receiving gifts and I don’t mind carols… when they’re done well. As I drove from my new hometown to my old hometown and back today though, I thought about a sort of small and insignificant aspect of Christmas; the wrapping paper.
I’ve learned in recent years that there is a more culturally acceptable way of opening gifts than my habit of carefully finding the sticky tape and peeling back the stuck down parts of the paper. I think I saw it as a sort of challenge to open something without ripping the paper, but I’ve discovered the general consensus is that you’re just supposed to rip it off. I suppose it’s a bit like the question of ‘do you scrunch or fold?’ when it comes to toilet paper. There will always be people on both sides with their reasons why (for the record, I used to scrunch and now I fold), but that’s beside the point. Whether you’re careful with your wrapping paper or you rip it off like there’s a million dollar cheque inside, I got to reflecting on the fact that either way it’s sort of a strange element within the whole Christmas rigmarole. For the most part, the wrapping paper things works out as follows:
- Gift giver goes out and chooses a design or two
- Gift giver cuts it specifically to the size and shape for the gifts they want to give
- The gift giver folds it, sticks it, and labels it
- Gift giver hand it over to gift receiver
- Gift receiver removes (via ceremonial peeling or unrestrained ripping) the paper
- The paper, now unstuck at best or totally torn apart at worst is set to the side, either to be sent away as rubbish or sometimes placed into a cupboard to be ‘recycled’ next year.
Why is this significant, you might ask? Reflecting on this made me think of three aspects of Christmas celebrations that contain some interesting parallels in regard to the way we treat our wrapping paper and the way we live our lives, or at least, the way I live my life.
I think if we’re not careful we can be in danger of treating our family like wrapping paper. Families are fascinating things. Often there are relationships within families that are really close, healthy and characterised by love, but there can equally be relationships that are difficult, awkward, heavy, painful, surface level or fake.
At Christmas there is a certain resolve within many families to make a concerted effort to come together and to try to ‘be family’ and ‘see family’ – and that’s a good thing. It’s great to celebrate important occasions with those closest to you, but there is a danger, I think, in papering over the gaps, in temporarily sticking things together so that they hold in place for the one or two or five family functions we are scheduled to attend, in pretending we are involved in each other’s lives and then a couple of days later going our separate ways until the next Christmas comes along. Both my wife and I have large extended families. We love them. They’re absolutely great, but as I reflected on the concept of treating aspects of Christmas like wrapping paper – nicely presented for a short time, then torn apart and put aside – I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness and more than a little bit of conviction. I know there are relationships that could be stronger. I know there are family members I could love better. I know there are people’s lives I could be more invested in, and yet the temptation each year is to tick the family box and go back to worrying about my life and the life of my immediate family once the Christmas celebrations are over, rather than keeping the wider family God has given me intentionally in view.
I believe earthly families are important to God, not in an ultimate or eternal sense, since we are called to be ready to put our commitment to and relationship with Jesus above our earthly relationships, but certainly in a temporal sense. They are groups of people given to us to do life with, to be connected to in some special way during our time on this earth. We are to honour our parents – that’s a command with a promise (Exodus 20:12), so clearly God has a purpose in placing us within families, with people around us to walk with us in all of life’s joys and difficulties… and everything in between. Perhaps we should call more often. Perhaps we should offer to pray for one another. Perhaps we need to make ‘family gatherings’ more than a once or twice a year event. Perhaps we need to make sure we aren’t just dressing up the family component of Christmas, only to tear it up and leave it in a mess, put it in the too hard basket or discard it as something for next year, once the holidays are over. I don’t think we do this intentionally, but in the busyness of life I think this subtle temptation is real, particularly outside the bounds of our immediate families.
One of the things I absolutely love about Christmas, both in the church and in secular culture, is that it is touted as a time of joy. Everywhere you look, people are singing about the birth of Jesus, the forever king who was born as a baby, grew up, lived a sinless, perfect life, died to pay the price for our sin and rose to conquer death in order to save his people. Everywhere you look people are giving gifts, receiving gifts, taking time off work (well maybe not everywhere you look… sorry retail, hospitality and essential services folks) and just generally looking for ways to celebrate. Granted, not everyone is celebrating for the right reason, but for me as a Christian, what a wonderful opportunity Christmas presents to actually speak about the things that really matter with my non-Christian friends, since they’re already singing about and hearing about those things anyway!
On Christmas Day we sit around tables full of great food and crack bonbons, we wear silly hats and tell lame jokes and laugh at funny stories and family memories. We enjoy catching up with people we haven’t seen for ages and we ‘wish’ everyone would be merry and happy for at least one week of the year between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day… There are definitely valid reasons why people struggle to find joy at Christmas time. For some it’s a painful time full of tension and anxiety. For others it’s a sad time as they mourn the loss of loved ones who in years gone by have been a huge part of their lives and, no doubt, of their Christmas celebrations.
We live in a broken world, but that’s exactly why Christmas is needed. Christmas reminds us of the answer to the world’s problems. Jesus came so that death wouldn’t win. Jesus came so that loneliness, abuse, division, decay, separation, anger and hurt do not have to be our default reality. Jesus came to rescue his people from the death and destruction caused by the fall. That is so worth celebrating, and yet it seems to be tempting to put on some temporary Christmas cheer, to wrap ourselves in the wrapping paper of joy that looks the part from the outside, only to find our joy strewn about on the floor a few days later as the prospect of a new year rolls around, with many of the same problems as the year before.
Jesus never promises us an easy life, but at Christmas we celebrate the coming of the source of true joy: Emmanuel, God with us. In John 15 Jesus talks about us abiding in his love and keeping his commandments. Then he says that he has told us this so that His joy may be in us and our joy may be full.
7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
The joy we were made for wasn’t designed to only stick around for a few days while we were on holidays at the end of the year. There is a lasting joy that comes from knowing and abiding in God’s love, walking with him daily and loving others as He has called us to. It’s easy to feel joy temporarily, to plan to spend more time with God and then to let our resolutions fall by the wayside in February, but I know this year it hit me afresh that the joy of Christmas, the wonder and astonishment of Emmanuel – God with us, should not be discarded like used wrapping paper once Christmas is over for another year. It’s a life-changing, year round reality – one that’s worth holding on to.
As a Christian, I’d have no problem saying my relationship with Jesus is central to who I am as a person. With that said though, I’m aware that for many non-Christians, Christmas and Easter are the only times of year they really hear or think about Jesus. This wrapping paper parallel doesn’t only ring true for non-Christians though, it can be true for believers too. At Christmas and Easter we spend extra time reflecting upon key events in the life of Jesus and the history of Christianity. We pay attention to the Biblical accounts of Jesus’s birth, death and resurrection. We know the stories. We know the ‘reason for the season’. We go to church, sometimes to multiple services across a couple of days to celebrate these things, and then we get a week or two beyond these key events and the shine of the glory of the truths we have reflected upon begins to become dim in our hearts and minds as we settle back into the routine of life. Difficulties at work, responsibilities at home, problems in our families and relationships, church once a week… and on and on it goes.
At Christmas we wrap and unwrap presents. At Easter we unwrap chocolate eggs. In both cases we take what we want and discard what we don’t find useful or don’t feel like we need anymore. We put extra time and effort into reflecting on important truths, wrapping our faith journeys in the spiritual highs of the ‘big two’ events of the Christian calendar. Then we go back to the monotony of everyday life, of the other 50 weeks of the year, allowing our focus to drop from these transcendent realities to instead focus on our circumstances. This Christmas and this New Year I want to remain in awe of the unchanging reality of the holiness and glory of God and his work in saving us through his Son, Jesus. This will mean more time spent studying the Bible, more time in prayer and a more intentional effort to refocus my attention on what is really, eternally important. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it (I’m not one for resolutions… I guess I figure if you’re going to make a change you should just make it), but if I was I’d want to resolve not to discard the big truth of Christmas, the reason for the season, once the season is over. The incarnation of the Son of God should be celebrated all year, not just on December 25th.
I’m sure these three things we can dress up and then ‘discard’ are not the only parallels we could draw at Christmas time, but they were the three that came to mind and caused my mind and my heart to be convicted and to want to seek change as I head towards the new year.
Whatever you’re doing to celebrate this Christmas, may it be a significant time for you and your family, and as you’re wrapping and unwrapping presents, I’d encourage you to reflect on the significance of the wrapping paper, not as an object in and of itself, but in terms of what it might represent as something you might be tempted to let fall by the wayside after the turkey settles.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5 (ESV)
May you see the beauty of the light of the glory of God this Christmas, and may it stay with you and guide you in 2018 and beyond.