Friday, December 25, 2020

Devotionals for the Heart: Examining the Heart of Christmas

The Heart of Christmas
A devotional by Amy Odland

“I came from the Father and entered the world; 
now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.” 
– John 16:28 (NIV)

It’s here! The big day—December 25th! It’s Christmas Day!

The day of celebration and gifts and peace on earth. The day of hope and love. The day of believing in humanity and gathering together.

This year is different though, isn’t it? Budgets are tighter. Lockdowns are in place. Relationships are bruised or broken. People who were lost this year are maybe missing from our tables or Zoom chats or family gatherings are smaller or not happening at all. Church services have an air of sadness about them, maybe because they’re online or just not the usual intimate candlelight service we’re used to. Days seem darker this year, Winter Solstice aside, due to the unrest and hurt we’ve experienced, either due to loss (of life, of jobs, of trust, of hope) or just because of how we’ve all responded or reacted to living and trying to survive pandemic chaos and national political and social unrest these past ten months.

A few of my friends and I were joking at the beginning of the month that it would be nice to extend Christmas into January (aka leave our decorations up, continue listening to the music, make more cookies, etc.). We realized then that 28 days of “Christmas” wasn’t going to be enough for 2020 and the hardship we’ve seen so far. I was just kidding at the time, but quickly realized that whether the decorations stay up or come down, whether or not the music continues to play, and whether or not the family can gather to exchange gifts, the heart of Christmas does live past today.

One may first ask, what even IS “Christmas” really?

Encyclopedia defines the Christmas holiday as the “Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus.” While it is widely accepted that Jesus Christ’s birth likely didn’t happen exactly on December 25, the date was probably chosen because it was close to other Roman/pagan celebrations, Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, other festivals, and the calculation/assumption of when Mary received the visit from the angel announcing Jesus’s conception.

The earliest Christmas celebrated dates back to A.D. 336. However, centuries later, this holiday was reconceived in the early 19th century by authors like Charles Dickens and Clement Clarke Moore to be a holiday emphasizing family, children, kind-heartedness, gift-giving, and Santa Claus. It was declared a national holiday in the United States in 1870 and thanks to capitalism and consumerism, Christmastime is a mixed-up mess of never-ending Black Friday sales and songs like Christmas Shoes that hits us every year between Thanksgiving and today. 

In the midst of all the tinsel and wrapping paper, let’s not miss that Christmas is first and foremost a celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. Its very name reflects this. This holiday, also known as “The Christ’s Mass”, celebrates the one who was born of a virgin, who came to earth to live as a human, who grew up and said he was “from the Father” (John 16:28) and used God’s name, “I AM,” to identify himself (John 18:5-6). The one who said He was the bread of life (John 6:35), the door through which to enter heaven (John 10:9-11), the light in the darkness (John 8:12), the good shepherd (John 10:11-18), the resurrection and the life (John 11:25-26). Jesus said that He is the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6).

We celebrate His birth because He said He was the hope and light of the world, the Son of God, and we can believe Him because He also said He’d die and be raised to life three days later and that happened as well. Jesus Christ is the only one who has ever claimed to be God and been raised from the dead; all other spiritual leaders/teachers of His caliber are still in their graves.

With all this in mind, how you view December 25 determines if the heart of Christmas can live on in your heart after today is done.

Is today a celebration of the changing seasons and of the days getting longer again, that focuses on feasts and gifts and decorations? Is Dec. 25 a time for human traditions or a “going through the motions” celebration? Or is today a day of giving thanks and praise to God for sending His one and only Son as a baby in a manger as a human representation of God’s love for you and a sign of His faithfulness to the world? Are you celebrating the gift of Jesus by sharing His love with those around you?

If the last one is truly the heart of Christmas for you, then the “why” behind all you do during this busiest season of the year—behind all the gift-giving, stringing of bright lights, baking of special Christmas cookies and other human traditions—takes on new meaning. The “heart of Christmas” to you holds the beauty of Jesus’s love for you and the promise of spending eternity with Him after you die and He returns to take you home to Heaven. It’s not about the gifts, the decorated tree, the festive lights, the delicious holiday food or the special gatherings with your family and friends. It’s all about Jesus and His love for you!

In John 13:15 (NLT) Jesus said “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” His last words to His disciples before He was arrested, beaten, and hung on a cross were filled with repeated commands of “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34 NIV)

As Christians, we’re supposed to be modeling Christ’s love for us to those around us. Sure, we unfortunately tend to fail miserably quite a bit of the time, but we also do pretty good despite our shortcomings. Jesus said He had to leave so the Helper would come to be with us (John 16:7).

This spirit of help—the Holy Spirit—is the only way we are able to do things with a spirit of love, hope, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness when we don’t really want to. This a mystery too large to tackle in this devotional, but know that you can have the “heart of Christmas”—that feeling of joy and peace this day brings—whenever you want if Jesus is in your heart. It can happen long after the decorations are packed up, after the gifts are exchanged or broken or have grown wearisome, or even after the sadness has faded of the family gathering being cancelled because of a global pandemic.

Let’s review ways in which we can keep the heart of Christmas alive year-round:

When you give without expecting to receive in return, you keep the heart of Christmas alive.

When you forgive without receiving forgiveness first, you keep the heart of Christmas alive.

When you put someone else’s needs before yours, you keep the heart of Christmas alive.

When you react in a way that is better than what was deserved, you keep the heart of Christmas alive.

When you “love one another as I have loved you,” (my paraphrase of John 13:35 NIV), you keep the heart of Christmas alive.

When you “do as I have done for you,” you keep the heart of CHRIST alive.

The heart of Christmas is not in decorations or gifts or family. It’s not in remembering the poor just once a year or in donating to your favorite charity on #GivingTuesday.

The heart of Christmas lives on past today because the love and spirit of Christ lives on in those who believe in Him throughout the year. You can help keep it alive by asking Jesus to live in your heart, by continuing to learn about Him and what He said during His time on earth, and by living out His commands to the best of your ability with His Holy Spirit guiding you.

Merry Christmas, friend. May you truly find the heart of Christmas today and in the days ahead.

(Please enjoy this song by Steven Curtis Chapman, called “Christmas is All in the Heart,” as a musical reflection of my thoughts.)

Author Bio:

Amy Odland has been serving in church ministry as a volunteer leader for over 16 years, in various worship, prayer and women’s ministry roles. 

Her passion for helping women stems from her own struggles and lessons learned in her journey as a Christian since first deciding to follow the Lord in 1994.

Amy’s priorities after her faith include her family — husband Rick, and their four kids — as well as extended family who all live close in proximity and the many friends she’s made over the years.

In addition to a love of teaching and helping her husband with the bookkeeping for their many businesses, Amy has recently expanded her stay-at-home work to include leading author’s book launch teams for publishing companies like Baker, Revell, Barbour, and Lifeway.

She also enjoys teaching new authors about platform building, self-launching, and online marketing.

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