Joy to the world the Lord is come,
Let earth receive Her King;
Let every heart prepare him room.
The Christmas that my family came home from five years on the mission field was one of the most vivid of my childhood. I was eight, and, in my memory, the Christmas tree in the corner of my grandparent’s living room — with its twinkling lights and sparkling glass balls and decorations — was stories high. Even though I knew the real meaning of Christmas was celebrating the coming of Christ into the world, I quickly forgot that as my attention was drawn to the growing stack of presents. Family members kept showing up at the door with beautifully wrapped treasures to add to the pile, and the only explanation was that everyone was making up for five years of missed Christmases. As the number of days left until Christmas morning grew smaller, the stack of presents grew larger. And every morning I would venture downstairs in the sleeping house to tally up all the presents with my name on them.
As that little eight-year-old, I prepared my heart each morning in expectation of what treasures I would unwrap on Christmas morning. Now as an adult, whenever I remember that feeling of excitement it serves as a poignant challenge to my soul: what would the holiday season feel like if I had that kind of childlike expectation in my heart for Christ? What if the days leading up to Christmas morning were marked, not by the tallying of treasures with my name on them, but by the tally of the treasures found in Christ?
The last few years of my life have been marked by a growing determination to remember Christ throughout the holidays — and, amidst enjoying the many delights of the season, to make sure He receives a place of honor in my thoughts and actions throughout the season. But the holiday season is notoriously boisterous, and the calendar month of December is always bursting at the seams with more events than there are dates! It is the perfect environment to get distracted, overcommitted, overwhelmed, and forget the reason for it all. Every year I ask myself, how can I keep Christ central? One answer could be to limit the number of activities and events, eliminate unnecessary distractions, or do less baking. (Actually, this is not a problem for me as I’ve never made a successful cookie in my life!) But I love the hustle and bustle that comes with seeing so many beloved friends and family and celebrating together. I don’t want to eliminate any of it. In fact, I want to add to it. Add more worship. Add more Scripture and soak in it. Add a deeper thought process about all that Christ is, and what He has accomplished. I want to learn to do as Brother Lawrence described: “Keeping my mind in His holy presence, and recalling it as often as I [find] it wander[ing] from Him.”
This year, I am struck by Mary’s example in Luke 2. She took a deliberate pause in the midst of the rush of all that surrounded the birth of Christ to savor what was happening in and around her. Just stop for a moment and imagine what her world would have felt like when her son Jesus arrived on the scene. A census had been called for people to return to their hometowns. Bustling bodies had moved into Bethlehem, renting up rooms, buying supplies — jostling and frantic. And in the swirl were Joseph and Mary. Both had experienced miraculous and mind-boggling proclamations from angels about Mary’s supernatural pregnancy. After a whirlwind of unexpected events, a terribly long walk, and an uncomfortable ride on a donkey, they found themselves in a foreign city where Mary gave birth to God’s Son in a barn, due to lack of space in any proper accommodations.
Unbeknownst to Mary and Joseph, some shabby shepherds from the fields were making their way to visit the new baby after hearing angels heralding, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day … a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk. 2:10-12 ESV). And when the shepherds joyfully arrived in a mass of stinky, sweaty robes and fluffy little sheep, they shared with jubilance all that the angels proclaimed to them.
But then comes a precious moment in time — the moment that I want to be reflected in my heart this Christmas. Mary paused in the midst of the busy, joyful activity all around her and the Bible says she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19 ESV). Mary’s labor and her long journey to this moment was over — nestled in her arms was the Savior. But her comprehension of this Christ was just beginning to take shape. The Greek word for ponder is symballō and means “to bring together in one’s mind.” Mary was coming to a gradual, astounding realization and putting all the pieces together of what had taken place.
Maybe you’ve wondered like I have: what were all the things she was thinking about in that moment? The Bible doesn’t say, but I can imagine it was the words of the angels spoken over her, the emotion of learning she was chosen to bear the Son of God, the process of the long journey to Bethlehem, the words of the shepherds, prophecies of who this child was, the fruition of God’s plan — all of it. She may have even recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6 ESV). Those names — each one with rich meaning; a tally of the treasures found in Christ!
I cannot imagine what significance Isaiah’s prophecy would have had as Mary realized she held the very child, the very Son of which Isaiah spoke. No birth before or since has had such meaning. And her understanding would continue to take shape until the moment when her Savior — this same Son — would rise from the dead to give her new life. Wonder of wonders! But in that quiet moment of reflection, all the voices and activity around Mary become just a whisper as she looked upon Jesus. And this is where our eyes and hearts should rest too during the Christmas season, pondering with wonder all that He is.
The prophet Zechariah wrote, “Be still before the Lord, all mankind, because He has roused Himself from His holy dwelling” (Zech. 2:13 NIV). I can just imagine the hush in Heaven as God roused Himself from His throne to set a story in motion, as He prepared to send His only Son into the world to be born as a man, to walk among us, and to prepare the way for our salvation. Something truly wonderful happened, and the world became witness to it.
The Christmas season is an opportunity to embrace a hushed heart and freshly witness all that Christ is and all He has done in our lives, to remember His birth, His ministry, His sacrifice, His redemption. This year, I want to cultivate the quiet interior life of expectancy that Mary had as she realized with deep awareness that the Son of God had come into the world.
Keeping Christ central through the holidays is no different than keeping Him central through the rest of the year, but the Christmas season has the added bonus of reminders everywhere! Angels and nativity scenes, stars to top our trees, and Christmas carols that proclaim, “Glory to the newborn King!” Cards with Bible verses arrive in the mail and get propped up all over the house, and we have the opportunity to serve others by thinking of what would bring them joy throughout the season. All of these things can be reminders to point us to Christ, but we need to be mindful to pause and reflect at each opportunity. Instead of glossing over all that makes the Christmas season familiar, let’s bring to mind what makes each element significant, and what the entirety of the season is pointing to.
Keeping our minds in His holy presence and pondering His life will make the season new and fresh. The familiar will have new significance, and a heart that is constantly seeking to be in His presence can take Christmas in as though experiencing it for the first time.
Let’s enjoy building snowmen and singing Christmas carols, drinking candy cane lattes and apple cider, mailing cards to friends and family, preparing gifts for loved ones, making meals, baking goodies, and the glitter and sparkle of the holiday season. But let’s do it with the desire to turn down the excess noise that the Christmas season can create, and instead embrace a heart that is thoughtful to ponder and treasure the person of Christ.