Six Ways to More Life, Joy and Meaning at Christmas

Lael Arrington's picture

Go deeper into the incarnation, feast on the art of Christmas, plan a mini advent retreat, host a "True Meaning of Christmas" tea, mix the fun with the meaningful at parties, and serve "the least of these." Click for practical suggestions and links.

1. Go deep into the Incarnation

Celebrate Emmanuel, “God with us” by stripping away the blur of Christmas bustle to wonder at the mystery of an infinite God entering a blastula, a fetus, an infant who can only wriggle and cry and coo (and poo in his diaper). What did he know and when did he know it? As he learned to walk and talk how did his understanding of being God unfold? Was it there all along? Like Mary, ponder in your heart, the power and vulnerability of God. Think what it means that Jesus, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you by his poverty might become rich (2 Cor 8:9)

Go higher and deeper with a Christmas devotional that helps take you there. One of my favorites: Come Thou Long Expected Jesus: experiencing the peace and promise of Christmas. Editor Nancie Guthrie has collected Christmas reflections from some of the greatest minds and hearts of the faith: Whitefield, Luther, Spurgeon, Augustine, Calvin, Schaeffer, Packer, Sproul and the piece by Tim Keller is worth the price of the book—enough to meditate on all season.

2. Feast on the Art of Christmas

God has given us music, image and metaphor to express his glory in ways that words cannot. Watch flash mobs on YouTube sing the Messiah or attend the real thing. Read the astounding story of Handel writing The Messiah (p. in Kelly’s and my book Faith and Culture). Find a book of Christmas paintings. Print some off and frame them or fold them into your Bible. A truly great image of Christmas will float in your head and keep taking you back to the wonder. Even in the car wash.

Last year I wrote about Bruce Herman’s magnificent paintings of Mary—The Annunciation, Mary and Elizabeth and Mary Overshadowed. I asked Bruce this year for a recommendation for a great painting that takes us into both the minor theme of suffering and loss (having a baby in a stable, the slaughter of Bethlehem’s baby boys) and the major theme of love triumphant, life and joy (the annunciation, wise men worshipping, resurrection).

Bruce suggested the masterpiece of Matthias Grunewald — the Isenheim Altarpiece. It is, Bruce said, “the preeminent example of an artist showing that the Nativity can only be accessed by the facing of the Cross. The piece was commissioned and painted for a hospital for suffers from St. Anthony’s Fire — a terrible wasting disease that left its victims without limbs, etc. as a result of terrible fever, gangrene, etc. It was believed to be contagious (it was not) and so those afflicted were segregated and quarantined — and the painting was created for them in their isolation.

"The central figure is Christ on the cross — a grotesque and yet beautiful figure in all its pain. When the altarpiece is opened up inside is the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Resurrection — but you must start with the Crucifixion of Jesus to get to the joy of the Savior’s birth and eventual Resurrection. What is so fascinating is that Grunewald painted the Crucifixion in such a way that you must sever Christ’s right arm in order to open the triptych up and show the inside scenes with Mary and the angels, and eventually the Resurrected Jesus.” 

3. Plan an Advent Mini-Retreat in your home or church

Invite women for a morning of Advent Reflection. Savor together Christmas stories, art or music through computer, TV or stereo capability. Then send each person to a different room where a Christmas nook is prepared for them--a candle, a Christmas ornament and a comfy place to read--and reflect on what you’ve discussed. Give 30-60 minutes to journal, pray, perhaps answer some questions for reflection and then gather back together and share your insight. If time, repeat with a new focal point.

I did this last Christmas with the focus on Mary. Doing it again this year with the focus on the Longing and Waiting of Advent. I was inspired by this quote from Dietrich Bonhoffer: “Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!" We’ll trace the major and minor themes through Christmas, listen to O Come Emanuel and Coventry Carol and look at the Isenheim Altarpiece together.

4. Invite friends in for a “True Meaning of Christmas Tea.”

Hot tea, warm muffins…it can be festive and dressy or cozy and casual. Mid-morning or mid-afternoon. The Brits have tea every day and simply rustle up what they have on hand. A little bit of this or that. For something easy and special...buy bread at a favorite bakery, or scones from Henry and David or English Muffins from Wolferman’s and freeze so you can pull out for an impromptu tea at any time. I love Republic of Tea’s caramel apple tea for this time of year. Ask women to bring a picture or recording or reading about Christmas that has been deeply meaningful to them and share with the group. Give the gift of your presence to each other. Pray for one another.

5. At your parties, mix the fun with the meaningful.

We enjoy Pictionary with designated draw-ers. That way it takes the pressure off the un-artists. Each side huddles and selects 8 Christmas “things” (8 maids a-milking, Caesar Augustus, “It’s a Wonderful Life”), writes them on index cards and puts them in a basket. The designated draw-er picks a card, announces the category (movie, book, Bible story, person) and starts drawing. Easel and large sketch pad help.

Combine Christmas treats and a fun game with questions for discussion that enable people to get to know each other better. Add a few that invite a deeper reflection on the meaning of Christmas. Here are some suggestions: • What is your favorite Christmas carol and why? • The greatest gift of Christmas is Jesus. What about the gift of this child are you most grateful for? • What are the most special memories connected to your Christmas ornaments? • Favorite Christmas food? • What do you miss most about Christmases past? • What aspect of the incarnation is the greatest mystery to you? • How did your family handle the “Santa” thing? (family of origin or your own family) • Best present you ever gave or received? • At what point did your childhood romantic view of Jesus in the sweet hay surrounded by kindly animals, noble shepherds and angel wings give way to a more realistic view? • Do you have any questions for God about the Christmas story?

6. Serve “the least of these.”

When I think of what Jesus would do at Christmas to make the season more meaningful, I think, “Share your time, talent or treasure with those who need it most” Someone in the hospital or prison, someone who is overlooked or friendless or simply down and in need of encouragement.

This past week I had the great privilege of speaking to men in prison. All believers, they are a mighty cohort for Christ behind the razor wire. I have a dear friend whose son is in prison for life without parole. Afterwards I called her; “I felt like Job today…before, my ears had heard, but today, my eyes have seen!” These men are so humble and real and even more powerful than when they were on the streets with guns and running vast drug operations. I thank God for the way they expressed appreciation for my visit, but I can’t imagine that I blessed them half as much as they blessed me.

I don’t know what keeps us hooked in to our middle class homes and churches and friends and Christmas parties. BREAK OUT! "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:19)

On a 1 to 10 scale of Having a Meaningful Christmas…serving the poor and needy is about a 12. So much joy and life and meaning in blessing those who need it most.

I know you have great suggestions of how you make Christmas more meaningful. I hope you’ll share them here.

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