Nine Ways To Keep The Holidays Holy
A young girl went with her pastor father when he led a Christmas afternoon worship service at a retirement home. His exuberance while telling the story and implications of Jesus’ coming was palpable, and Christmas carols were sung with enthusiasm by a delighted crowd of residents and visiting family members.
One nurse, however, obviously not pleased to be working the holiday, growled and grimaced as she shuttled wheel chairs in and out. When the worshippers shouted, “Joy to the World,” the mission-minded girl whispered to her, “Did you ever hear this story before?”
“Of course!” snapped the nurse at this impertinence. “I’m a Christian!”
“Well you should tell your face!” said the wee one.
Keeping the Holidays Holy
Emotions run rampant during the holidays, many bright, and probably just as many dark and malignant. For busy church leaders, rushing, overwork, and then loneliness and fatigue often claw the innards. Sometimes we realize what is happening to us, but often we push things down, knowing we don’t have the time to deal with stuff right now.
How might we move through Advent and the holiday season with more of holy buoyancy and less of ulcerating stress?
Here are some Advent thoughts, gleaned from my own years in ministry leadership:
1. Don’t criticize our cultural commercialized “happy holidays” celebrations; it only makes you seem like Grinch.
2. Remember that the Christmas story begins with Advent, and the brokenness that calls out longing and hope in all of us.
3. Christmas is highly theological, but it is best communicated in story form—God’s story and our many tales of failure, longing, grace, miracles and transformation.
4. Worship is never a production.
5. There are at least ten New Testament ways to tell the Christmas story:
Matthew—Jesus embodies God’s work through Israel (miraculously born, nazarite from birth, called out of Egypt while the king tries to kill baby boys out fear, challenged through 40 in the wilderness, washed in the Jordan, and receiving God’s word on the mountain), and carries it forward to the nations.
Mark—while the powerful “Son of God” on Rome’s throne demeans, diminishes, and demoralizes the little people of this world, the true “Son of God” empowers them.
Luke—even though Rome made life good for many, Jesus came to be the Savior of the marginalized.
John—when creation’s glory had been snuffed by the virus of sin, Jesus re-creates our world, and all who touch him begin to glow again with Life.
Paul in Romans 8—God is so committed to loving us that nothing will stand in the way.
Paul in Galatians 4—God had this thing planned for a very long time, and that is why it worked so well.
Hebrews 2 & 4—in Jesus, God fully identifies with us; this is our hope and help and comfort, ensuring that we are truly children of God.
Peter—Jesus came to suffer with us here, that we might one-day share in his glory there.
John—love requires personal involvement and investment, and the measure of God’s love for us is seen in Jesus’ full identification with us, and ours with others.
Revelation 12—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; but all is God’s time.
6. The season of Christmas begins on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and does not end until Epiphany, so let the music and message linger through at least two Sundays.
7. Year’s ending is at least as important as New Year, since there is much we need to remember and regret and be thankful for; if we do not look back, we cannot look ahead.
8. New Year celebrations are about grace and Providence and God’s good gift of time and hope; resolutions are rarely helpful in those moments.
9. Holiness is found wherever God is, and all of God’s days are holy days; so the “holydays” should not be a time apart, but the continued telling of the greatest story—God’s story.
A True and Good Christmas Story
In 1944, a Canadian soldier came home to Halifax, Nova Scotia, bringing tuberculosis home along with other war wounds. His 3-year-old son remained healthy, but his wife soon was heading for death, infected by bacteria he transferred. Hospitalized, doctors sought every way to treat her, but a new medicine from Johns Hopkins made her nauseous, and other treatments failed. By late fall, all knew death was imminent. Weakened to exhaustion, the woman was determined to live at least until Christmas. She even begged her doctor to be given leave to go home for a few hours on Christmas day, should she survive that long. Knowing that it would not happen, the doctor smiled and nodded.
But last, she did. And on Christmas Day, against all medical warnings, the doctor reluctantly allowed her to go home for the afternoon, reminding her to keep a mask in place for the protection of her young child. He watched nurses lifting her feeble body into the car with her husband, fully expecting that the efforts would kill her, and she would not return.
Yet she came back Christmas night, with a bit of a smile. And she did not die. She lingered and remained, hovering over Sheol and mercilessly dancing with Death. Through New Year’s. Through January. She hung on beyond all possible human strength and expectation. In fact, during February, she began to sit up again, and eat a bit. Some color even returned to her cheeks. The medical staff was astounded, and her doctor could claim no part in her progress.
Then the nausea hit. Worse than before. This was a-typical. There were no medical histories that included nausea this late in the ravages of tuberculosis. The doctor ordered a blood test, and it revealed the cause. The wasted woman was pregnant! During the few Christmas hours with her husband and child, she had come to be with child!
Her doctor was perturbed, the nursing staff incredulous. But she was alive, and so was a tiny Christmas baby in her womb. And that was when the miracle began to happen. For as the Christmas child grew, its body expanded in the cavity of her womb, and pushed her diaphragm up against her leaking, tuberculoid lungs. The pressure closed some holes, and the flow of protective hormones accelerated healing and strengthening.
By March, it was clear that this woman would live and not die. By April she was able to go home. And by summer, she was strong enough to return to full and healthy living. In September, child of Christmas was born, the baby that saved its mother.
Every birth is a miracle.
But the birth of the Christmas baby saves us in unexpected and surprising ways. And “holyday” season remains holy only when that wonder remains at the center.