Holy Days, Holidays, & Christmas

Christmas was important to me even before I called myself a Christian, though admittedly, this was mainly for non-religious reasons. I’ve long suspected that I have always loved Christmas more than any other holiday, not because of its spirituality but because it purchased my affections. It’s true that I loved the music and the pageantry. The glow of the lights and the smell of evergreen seemed to transport me to another world. But it was the presents that clinched the deal. When it came to gifts, Christmas was the motherload. Far better than birthdays or any other holiday.

When I became a follower of Jesus, I expected the change to transform Christmas the same way it transformed the rest of my life. I assumed the season, which seemed magical to me already, would become transcendent. It did not. If anything, the change somehow managed to dim the glow.

Perhaps this was because of the church culture to which I had become attached. The church tradition I joined was what is commonly described as a “low” church. Apart from Christmas and Easter, we didn’t follow the church calendar. Even the attention paid to those two days seemed grudging at times. We were proud of this bare-faced approach that disassociated us from Roman Catholicism, with its robes, smoke, and long lists of feasts that never seemed to involve actual food.

Of course, we had our own list of special days and celebrations. So I suppose you could say they were feasts of a sort. There were potlucks and suppers, the annual Valentine’s day banquet, and a church meal after every funeral. There were also a vast variety of informal meals, usually related to specific events or the passing of the seasons. But, in retrospect, it occurs to me that most of these occasions were more social than religious.

Christmas, on the other hand, was overtly religious. By it, we aimed to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We did this with a measure of reserve. There were a few decorations, but they were not elaborate. A handful of evergreen sprigs and the occasional wreath decked out with red and green ribbons were usually enough. Some churches, which would normally have eschewed putting up a Christmas tree in the sanctuary because of its pagan roots, even constructed a large tree-shaped scaffold for the choir and covered it with pine branches.

We hunger for the presence of God
but tend to confuse transendence with ambiance.

Christmas Eve was the only time we allowed candles in the sanctuary. Instead of lighting them for the dead like Catholics, we held them in our hands. We dimmed the lights and sang Silent Night as the wax dripped on the upholstery of the pew in front of us. I liked the flickering shadows but hated the song, not because of its content but for its familiarity. It bored me. As a rule, my tastes in Christmas music tended toward the medieval. I would rather sing Prudentius or some repurposed Gregorian chant.

The low church tradition in which I still worship appears to have overcome its reticence about candles and greenery. Advent candles, midnight services on Christmas eve, and strung lights are so common these days that we hardly notice the difference anymore. The church I currently attend piles so many Christmas trees into the place of worship that it feels like we are at a campground instead of in the sanctuary. I have even visited a church that broadcasts Chuck Berry singing “Run, run, Rudolph!” through loudspeakers outside its front door. On the stage in the auditorium where the congregation meets, a smoke machine generates a thin shekinah of mechanical fog.

As for me, my tastes in worship, like my tastes in Christmas music, tend toward the minor key. I have always felt a little envious of my high church friends who, when they lift their eyes in worship, see arches and stained glass instead of ductwork. I have wondered what it would be like to preach a sermon wearing vestments. It would be refreshing to attend a church that feels like a church instead of feeling like I am visiting a shopping mall, an office complex, or a repurposed grocery store. But God, I suspect, does not really care. Even the tabernacle, raised by divine command and meticulously constructed according to the pattern revealed to Moses on the holy Mountain, turned out to be only “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5).

We hunger for a sense of the presence of God. But tend to confuse transcendence with ambiance. In its worship practices, the church seems to struggle to find the happy medium between Puritan austerity and baroque gaudiness. This struggle is further complicated by differences in culture, style, and taste. Not every church celebrates Christmas the same. Indeed, as far as Scripture is concerned, we do not need to observe Christmas as a holy day at all. There is certainly no evidence in the New Testament that the first Christians did. In his book Ancient Christian Worship, Andrew McGowan contrasts “the colorful calendars of feasts, fasts, and saints that churches of the fourth and fifth centuries celebrated” with “the relative silence” of the New Testament on such matters.[1] The apostle Paul criticized the Galatians for “observing special days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10). In Colossians 2:16, he warned the Colossians not to let anyone judge them “with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” Christmas, it would seem, is not the queen of days. We are free to observe it or not observe it as we wish.

God’s presence is more likely to show itself
on the periphery of our daily experience
than in the church sanctuary.

Meanwhile, when God’s presence does show itself, it is more likely to be on the periphery of our daily experience than in the church sanctuary. God seems to inhabit the corners and shadows, preferring the unnamed days of ordinary time to the high holy days from which we expect so much. He does not come with fanfare. But as the carol says, silently, and in the places where all our hopes and fears meet. “No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

This is the message of Christmas. It is the old, old promise whispered in the Garden, shouted by the prophets, and trumpeted to shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem. It is the good news that God has drawn near by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He came with a real body to the real world. He came to die, rise, and will one day return. Only then will we know what it is like to experience God’s presence in its fullness.


[1] Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 259.

Imagine There’s a Heaven

Heaven has fallen on hard times. In Christian thinking, looking forward to heaven is no longer fashionable. Jeffrey Burton Russell observes in his book Paradise Mislaid, “Heaven has been shut away in a closet by the dominant intellectual trends of the past few centuries.”[1] There are a number of reasons for this. To some, the idea of looking forward to going to heaven seems frivolous. They feel that it is an exercise in self-absorbed indulgence. A quest for “pie in the sky by and by.” For others, notions of heaven are too abstract. It seems too wispy. Not the kind of place that those who have only ever known flesh and blood would feel comfortable, let alone happy. Mark Twain speculated in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, “Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.” Twain’s skepticism has uncovered the root of the problem. Either our imagination is too small to truly grasp the things that occupy our time and attention in heaven, or our nature must be radically changed before we can even endure the experience, let alone enjoy it. It seems likely that both are probably the case.

Admittedly, the few passages of Scripture that do speak of heaven are spare in detail, but those that exist suggest that their intent is not to provide us with a detailed travel brochure. They give the impression that a different order of things operates in heaven than the one that exists on earth. “Heaven is a wonderful place filled with glory and grace,” the children used to sing in Sunday school. Yet some of the Bible’s descriptions of heaven seem more unnerving than they do appealing with their winged many-eyed creatures (Rev. 4:8). Yet we should not be surprised that the biblical snapshots of heaven seem so alien to us. “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:12). If even the most basic aspects of heavenly reality are beyond us, how can we expect to grasp its full nature, except by faith?

Scripture speaks of heaven using the language of signs. The images seem fantastic. Yet they refer to things we know. They describe animals, rivers, seas, and cities. There is an obvious reason for this, according to C. S. Lewis. “Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience” he writes.[2] This is the way of all analogies. They use the known to explain the unknown.

Scripture speaks of heaven using the language of signs.

But this does not mean that Scripture merely employs spiritual baby talk about these things. It is no accident that nature often evokes a sense of God in us. God has not made heaven like the earth so that we will be comfortable there. Rather, in making earth, God has vested it with a kind of beauty and glory that is an echo of his own. Just as God made Adam and Eve in his image, He has also put a reflection of himself in creation. Heaven is not the earth. Based on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, we can be sure that it is much more. Yet whatever beauty heaven may hold, it is certainly not less than the beauty of earth.

Heaven is a Place

Heaven is a location, not a mystical abstraction. The children’s Sunday school song was right. Although “heaven” sometimes serves as a synonym for God in Scripture, it is also spoken of as a place. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught the disciples to ask that God’s will would be done “on earth” as it was “in heaven.” In his speech in Acts 3:21, Peter describes heaven as a location when he says that heaven “must receive” Jesus “until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Likewise, in Galatians 1:8, Paul gives this warning: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” In Paul’s statement, heaven and God are clearly not synonymous. The angel comes “from heaven” but not from God. Likewise, in John 3:13, Jesus asserts that He “came from heaven.”

An old cliché complains that some people are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good. But perhaps our problem is actually the opposite. We are not heavenly-minded enough. In the opening of his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis observed that our problem is that “We are far too easily pleased.”

A second reason heaven is no longer of interest to us is that we have grown impatient. A focus on kingdom theology has replaced an earlier generation’s emphasis on the hope of heaven because it seems to have more practical value for the present. To dwell on heaven seems selfish, while “working for the kingdom” feels more missional. When Christians talk about heaven, they speak of “going.” When they talk about the kingdom they speak of “building.” “You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site,” N. T. Wright explains in his book Surprised by Hope. “You are–strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself– accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.”[3] He is not wrong in saying this. The earthly analogies Scripture uses to describe the life to come indicate that it involves both continuity and reconstitution. Life on earth continues but on a new earth and in a greater city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Yet, despite what Wright says, the garden is about to be dug up so that something else can be put in its place (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

Not Heavenly Minded Enough

The problem we have with being heavenly-minded is not that it is too removed from the concerns of earth. In a way, it is the opposite. Our idea of heaven is too vague to be of much use at all. Yet the Scriptures, as sparing as they are on the subject, do speak of heaven and in concrete terms. For example, Scripture indicates that heaven can be seen. John’s description of heaven in the book of Revelation begins with an open door, a throne, and someone seated upon it (Rev. 4:2). This language may be figurative, but it is concrete. Even if one is reluctant to take such things in their literal sense, the material quality of these images leaves us with a concrete impression. John goes on to speak of heaven in earthly terms when he writes of crowns, gates, walls, and in the final battle, even animals. At the center of it all, of course, is God. He is unseen, except in the person of Jesus Christ, who appears in John’s vision, not as the familiar but undescribed Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels but instead as a lamb. Or, earlier in the book, Jesus appears in human but terrifying form (Rev. 1:14–16).

It seems clear that there is more to what John depicts than a photographic image. But once again, while the image as a whole may seem strange, its individual parts are not. We have seen and heard all these things. We know the color of bronze and the heat of a furnace. We have heard the sound of waves as they crash upon the shore. We have seen the stars high overhead and know a sharp sword’s intended use. The language does not need to be literal to leave us with an impression of the heavenly reality.

This is the key to laying hold of the Bible’s idea of heaven. We do not need a travel brochure with pictures and maps. A more literal description might capture the sights and sounds and still fall far short of the true nature of the experience. It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to thoughts of heaven, we are more easily captivated by the words of poets and storytellers than the theologians. A sermon may make us ponder, but a golden sunset will make us weep with longing. We think we would prefer prose so that we might understand what heaven will be like. But what we really need is something more akin to fantasy. I am not saying that heaven is a fantasy. It is as real and literal as a chair. But its reality is so fantastic that the literal does not seem to be able to do it justice, at least not on this side of eternity.

Heaven and Earth

But now comes the really strange thing. If the biblical writers are an example of how we must talk about heaven, it seems that the figures and terms of the literal world are essential to conveying its fantastic nature. It is no accident that those who speak of heaven, even in the Scriptures, more often than not describe it in earthly terms. They speak of the people and things we know.

It would seem, then, that we are not earthly-minded enough. Or rather, it might be better to say, our problem is that we are not thinking about earthly things in the right way. Like the door which stood open in Heaven for John in the Apocalypse, the natural world is often a gateway to anticipating the world to come. Not because the two are identical but because the latter’s imprint is upon the former. John Lennon famously sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” But Scripture admonishes us to do the opposite and employs earthly images to help us understand its nature and long for it.

In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes of a girl who had been blind since birth until an operation restored her sight. After her doctor removed the bandages, he led her into a garden where the girl stood in speechless wonder before a tree which she could only describe as “the tree with the lights in it.” Dillard writes that she sought to capture this same vision for herself as she walked along Tinker Creek. Then one day, when she wasn’t even trying, she suddenly came upon it. Or rather, I should say, it suddenly came upon her since she was not really thinking about it at the time. Dillard gazed at a cedar tree in the backyard, and suddenly everything was transfigured. “I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed,” Dillard writes. “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.”[4]

This is what it is like to imagine heaven. It is not so much a matter of seeing as it is one of being seen. We become aware of something far greater through sensible signs and veiled images. It is not the shape of heaven or the specifics of what awaits us there that we apprehend. But the real presence of the One who fills both heaven and earth. When Jesus asked the blind man he healed what he could see, the answer was that he saw men as trees, walking (Mark 8:24). But when we capture a glimpse of heaven in the earthly images presented to us in Scripture and through the reflected glory of what has been created, we see God walking. Not like the trees of the garden, but among them (Gen. 3:8).


[1] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It, (New York: Oxford, 2006), 1.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, (Grand Rapids: HarperCollins, 1980), 33.

[3] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 208.

[4] Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 33.

Cold Easter

It’s getting to look a lot like Easter. Which, frankly, isn’t saying that much. Between Christmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday is the favored child of the church calendar. The advent of Christmas is announced months in advance with music, decorations, movies, sales, and anticipatory feasting. We light candles, open doors on the advent calendar, and generally work ourselves into a state of hysterical glee and exhaustion.

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The Trouble with Meme Activism: Sometimes to Speak is Not to Speak

In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

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The Holy One of God

When I was a pastor, I noticed that my visits with people occasionally made them nervous. Maybe it was my personality. Perhaps I didn’t make enough small talk. But I think the cause lay elsewhere. I think they were sometimes uncomfortable because they saw me as a symbol of something else. Or, perhaps I should say, I was a symbol of someone else. One woman told me that she spent the whole day cleaning before I arrived. Then she said, “When the pastor visits, it’s almost like having God come to your house.” My wife, Jane, who had come with me, answered her with a laugh. “The difference is that God already knows what your closets look like.”

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The Savior With 10,000 Faces

A few years ago, it was popular for some Christians to wear wristbands with the initials WWJD on them. The letters stood for the question, “What would Jesus do?” The question is probably a good one. But it seems to assume that what Jesus would do is always evident to us. This isn’t always the case. In fact, the question the disciples asked more often than not was a very different one. Instead of wanting to know what Jesus would do, they asked, “Why did Jesus do that?” The disciples were often puzzled by Jesus. They were as confused by His actions as they were by His teaching.

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Journey of the Magi

For me, Christmas is pretty much over on December 26th. By then, I am ready to see the tree taken down and the decorations put back in their boxes. But for others, the celebration continues into January with the observation of the feast of the epiphany. It’s also sometimes called the feast of the theophany or the feast of the three kings. It celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. This year, those who observe it will do so on January 6th.

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REMYTHOLOGIZING CHRISTMAS: Why it’s Better to Wonder as We Wander

It’s that time of year when we tell the story of Christ’s Nativity. Then someone writes an article, publishes a book, or posts an exposé on social media telling us that everything we thought we knew about the old, old story is wrong. Yesterday, I saw one in my newsfeed shouting that Jesus’ family wasn’t poor after all. Joseph was a skilled tradesman who could afford to rent the stable because the inn was full. According to the retelling, it turns out that the stable wasn’t as rude and bare as the songs say. It was clean and private. I think it had wifi too.

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What Mary Knew

When I was a boy I thought I heard angels sing. I was in my bedroom at the time and the sound seemed to come from a distance. I was perplexed by what I heard. When I opened the bedroom window the music grew louder. I thought I could see a heavenly glow beyond the rooftop of the house next door. The fact that Christmas was approaching was the clincher for me. It had to be a heavenly choir of angels jubilating over the birth of the Christ child. There could be no other explanation.

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