Remember when Christmas seemed magical? Maybe for you it still does. I recently saw photos from some friends of their holiday in a German winter and I thought that if I was there Christmas’d feel more magical. Instead, in Australia we watch imagery of Christmas magic on our TV screens and in shop windows – quiet snow covered pine forests; Dickensian ladies and gentlemen strolling down snow covered streets to the sound of church bells, past doors adorned with holly and windows beaming warm, familial light into the cold; Snow men coming to life and talking with reindeer – while we peel our sweaty backs off the couch, or watch the grass around us wilt and turn brown, and feel slightly anxious about bushfires or tropical storms.
Every year I fight for a bit of Christmas magic. Have a tree, get some nice(ish) decorations. This year we went out and got some actually nice decorations without the ish, some from a shop selling hand made German goods (a theme developing?) and adorned our home with more decorations, and they’re putting up a fight against the withering heat. But I have learnt that those things on their own don’t do it. They’re material things that function like signposts, or wrapping paper. They adorn. Those things we identify with what’s special about Christmas were never meant to bear the weight of those expectations alone. Even our main imagery of Christmas magic, the jolly saint and his magical elves and flying reindeer, once pointing to a larger story of gift giving beyond himself, has now become nothing more than a representation of the same hollow materialism we live and breathe all year. The magic of spending money we don’t have and getting more stuff we don’t need. Part of the problem is that we want something we don’t believe in anymore.
And that’s understandable. I remember why Christmas felt magical as a kid. I loved reading fantasy stories and myths and folklore because of the desire for there to be more than just this ordinary material world. But Christmas was the time when the something more broke into the ordinary. Apparently one Christmas morning as a kid (I have no memory of this) I told my family I’d heard sleigh bells the night before. But as you grow up you realise that that doesn’t happen. What was the first crack in my young belief in Santa? Well, same as every kid, that he’s in all the shopping centres at once and looks different in each one. Easily explained away for the believer. But the second crack, the killer for me, was seeing a World Vision ad on TV one Christmas time and realising that Santa didn’t visit kids like that. Christmastime in a delightful German winter sounds magical until some sick person drives a truck through a crowd. Eventually everyone is touched by life’s darkness, and even before that just the disappointing emptiness and dashed hopes of our materialist dream. And lie awake as long as you like, there’s never any sound of sleigh bells overhead. ‘It’s a Christmas miracle!’ has become a sarcastic joke because we don’t believe in them anymore.
Despite this, I believe in the magic of Christmas.
Hanging on our plastic tree is a wooden decoration depicting a Christmas miracle. It has the world over been given the same saccharine treatment as most Christmas magic – a cute little barn housing a serene little family; here carved within a snowflake, often seen emanating the same soft glow that shines out of Dickensian windows. Hell, I couldn’t even resist adding something of that warm Christmas glow with a filter.
The birth of Jesus carried no such sentimental treacle. Born in some sort of room reserved for animals, probably attached to an overcrowded public shelter for travelers, the birth place of Jesus would’ve been noisy, smelly, busy and cold and dark. There were probably vermin. There was screaming and pain and bodily fluids. It was a birth of the neglected lower class, visited by rough and crass shepherds who were strangers. It would lead, a couple of years later, to a government ordered infanticide and refugee flight across the border.
In other words it looked no different from the grit and ash and smoke of life for most of the people of the world for most of history.
But it’s the contention of the gospels that in this gritty event the miraculous broke into the everyday at Christmas. It’s just that the miraculous really entered into the everyday. Lived in the everyday, every day. God became a kid like that. But in doing so he transformed the everyday forever.
If I’m honest I would like some magic that swoops down and chases the darkness away. One day. But the miracle of Christmas is of God destroying the world’s darkness by entering into it and passing through it. Christmas magic is the power of God to take the evil things of the world that oppose him and would destroy us, and bring good out of them. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him… (Romans 8:28). The reason Paul says we know this is because God has already done this in his own life.
Another decoration hanging on my plastic tree is a little bag containing plastic holly. And holly is another charming, delightful wintery Christmas image that points to the gritty, messy and painful magic of Christmas. Holly: thorns and red berries like red drops of blood. Like the thorns and drops of blood that circled the forehead of that baby when he grew up – the end point of his entering into the everyday. The shameful death to pay the penalty for our trying to kick God out of our lives – the thing which has brought all this darkness in the first place. God breaking into our everyday and taking it on himself.
It’s the Christmas miracle of entering a world full of grief and walking through that grief, bearing it on himself to the point of death, only to overcome it through resurrection – winning the expectation of a time when the grief is done away with for those who’ve found their shelter in him. It’s the Christmas miracle of something that doesn’t get much traction in these cynical times.
It’s the Christmas miracle of hope.
Life goes on. But for the person whose trust is in Jesus, not as it did before. Everything is invested with a miracle. Even the adornments of Christmas – the lights, the decorations, the carols, the jolly fat man, above all the gifts – don’t contain but (once did and can again) point to the real Christmas magic that has broken into our world once for all, has dealt with the heart of the problem, and contains the unshakeable promise that one day things will be right again.
It’s a Christmas miracle!