Grown-ups often say Christmas is for children, especially when they’re surrounded by little ones on a sugar plum rush eagerly reciting their wish lists to anyone with North Pole connections. When our celebrations grow quieter with the passage of time—less about tinsel and toys, more about a few days off and fond memories—we may ask in a different way what Christmas is about.
We know the ancient truth we’ve marked annually since childhood: Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, right? But in a quiet room with just a few lights twinkling and a dog snoozing at your feet, it’s fair to say, What is Christmas all about now?
As a pastor, my favorite moment of the busy holiday season was right after the Christmas Eve service. The last verse of Silent Night was sung, the last candle was extinguished, and the last worshipper stepped out onto the sidewalk. I would walk back into the sanctuary, illuminated only by the exit sign and lights on the tree, and sit in a back pew.
The atmosphere was still pregnant with the presence of God. (We could debate the theology of that statement, but it felt that way to me.) The Babe was born, the Incarnation re-lived, God with us. For a few more moments I would linger, amazed by it all.
After my reverie, I would unplug the tree lights, lock up the building, and take that feeling home with me.
When I in awesome wonder
We live in an age that needs wonder. Maybe that’s why the Marvel Universe movies are so popular, with Captain Whatever. People need to marvel at something. Superheroes will suffice.
A colleague of mine says we’ve all seen too much. So many mysteries of the universe have been solved that it takes something wildly spectacular to amaze us anymore. Wide-eyed wonder is hard to achieve in a time of ready-made answers and information available on voice recognition. Google knows all. Siri tells all. YouTube reveals all. And you never have to leave home.
On a recent evening, my Smart TV alerted me to simultaneous livestreams of gnus at a watering hole in Namibia, the green glow of aurora borealis over Canada, and a view of deep space with its 10 billion galaxies. (“Your video will play after the ads. 3-2-1…”) I watched all three in live time from my recliner.
Our greatest sense of wonder may come not from considering 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way (that’s the number scientists say), but instead looking back through time to a single star over a solitary town that produced wonder the world has yet to fully comprehend. Maybe that which produces wonder is not so much “out there,” but in here. That this infinite God cares about lowly humans is a wonder.
“When I look at your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him?”
Lost in wonder, love, and praise
This word translated “wonder” (thauma) appears 44 times in the New Testament, in one form or another. In this form it appears eight times in the Gospels, usually in response to Jesus’ teachings and miracles.
In Luke 1, the people wonder when John the Baptist’s father, made mute for his disbelief, was asked what to name the child. Wouldn’t a miracle baby born to an old couple be named after his father, Zechariah? “He asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marveled all” (Luke 1:63 KJV). Zechariah followed the angel’s instructions after all.
The people wonder again in Luke 2. The news revealed by angels over Bethlehem was so great that the shepherds could not keep it to themselves. A Baby born in a cattle shed is God’s chosen one. “And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds” (Luke 2:18 KJV).
Wonder is a human response to things we don’t understand, along with shock, fear, dismay, and awe. Wonder gives us something to hold tightly when circumstance threatens to overwhelm us. It is the positive side of skepticism.
John the Baptist’s father was doubtful when the angel predicted the old man was to be father to a son. In contrast, young Mary was amazed by the angelic announcement she received, that a virgin would conceive, and it would be God’s miracle plan for saving humanity.
Her wonder would be repeated many times during her Son’s earthly life. “But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them” (Luke 2:19 CSB). Another translation says she “pondered” them—an excellent word for the mulling nature of wonder. Something amazing but without ready explanation deserves ongoing consideration. Our wonder should not flicker briefly then be gone, but linger and be turned over in our minds.
Mary stored up her wonder to tell later. In contrast, the Magi’s reaction was immediate. Their wonder produced celebration. Their revelry began as they journeyed from Herod’s palace in Jerusalem to lowly Bethlehem, even before they found the prophesied King. “When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him” (Matt. 2:10-11 CSB).
Wonder produces worship, then and now.
Oh, the wonder of it all
A friend in Chicagoland told the story annually about the December without snow. Everyone there loved the first snowfall or two, especially the inches-deep blanket that transformed bare-limbed December into a winter wonderland.
That year—now over 20 years ago—there was no snow.
Well into December, weather records were broken daily by its absence. Everyone was dreading a green Christmas, my friend especially. This mother of young children envisioned a holiday with sleds and skates and Frosty on the front lawn. How could Christmas be Christmas without snow?
Christmas Eve arrived with a few puffy clouds, but no snow in the forecast. She bundled up her family and they trundled off into the dark for the Candlelight Service. At church, they sang the carols and shared the light and heard the story once again. The Babe was born in Bethlehem, even without my friend’s traditional Midwest blanket of white.
As the pastor opened the doors for the worshippers to depart, my friend saw it: The snowfall had started while they were in worship. Every surface sparkled. The moonlit landscape was indeed a wonder.
“But, you know,” she would say with every telling, “as happy as I was to see the snow, my miracle had happened inside. I realized Christmas would come, and we’d greet Jesus all over again, no matter the weather.”
Isn’t that the essence of Christmas? It isn’t based on outside circumstances, but on the inside.
Christmas distilled is the wonder that God Himself came to earth to be our Savior. Even without the customary festivities, Christmas instills wonder once again. The worship it produces is the right response to the One who did the most wonderful thing ever on our behalf. We need only to revisit Bethlehem…and Calvary.
The wonder of it all, just to think that God loves us.
Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist media.