A (non)traditional Christmas

Published 12:58 pm Saturday, December 30, 2017

Christmas is a time of traditions. Christmas traditions vary from family to family and city to city, but most of us have Christmas traditions that make the season feel like Christmas. The traditions we love include everything from food, family gatherings, presents, pictures with Santa, favorite movies (mine is “It’s a Wonderful Life,”) to traditions that center on celebrating the core of Christmas like worship services, Advent wreaths, reading the Christmas story from the Bible and more. Growing up, we even had a book that we traditionally read every Christmas Eve (Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,”) while having our traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and being a part of the traditional Christmas Eve candlelight worship service.

As I have moved from being a child to being a parent with children of my own, we have worked to develop our own Christmas traditions. Some of these traditions are the same ones I enjoyed as a kid and some are different. I have come to love getting pictures with Santa every year even though I never did that as a kid!

One of the traditions that has always been a consistent part of my life is a Christmas Eve candlelight worship service. Gathering with the church to tell the story of Christmas and then pass the light of Christmas (Jesus is the light of the world who we are all invited to embrace and share with those around us.) while singing “Silent Night” has always made it feel like Christmas has arrived. A church full of people singing boldly about the “Holy infant so ten-der and mild” holding candles burning with Christ’s light makes something click inside me to say, “It is Christmas!”

Except this year it didn’t.

This year, we didn’t get to sing “Silent Night” or share the light of Christ with those around us. In fact, we didn’t spend Christmas Eve in church at all — we spent it at the hospital with our newborn daughter who had arrived on the 23rd. We were thrilled to welcome her into the world and Christmas Eve was a wonderful time of celebration of new life — but it didn’t “feel like” Christmas Eve. We were able to get discharged late on Christmas Eve so we could celebrate Christmas Day, and the traditions that go along with it, at home, but even with a somewhat “traditional” Christmas Day, Christmas never felt quite right without a church full of people singing “Silent Night.”

Here’s the irony: how we spent Christmas Eve — caring for a newborn baby in a strange and uncomfortable place — was, in many ways, much more like the first Christmas than candles and “Silent Night.” The story of Christmas is the story of a nontraditional birth (no one planned to give birth in a stable) of a nontraditional child (the father, God, was not there) in a nontraditional place (traveling to a unfamiliar town was not part of the traditional way of having a baby). Before Jesus’ birth, the traditional way to seek God would have involved the temple, prayers, and following the rules set out by religious leaders. Tradition did not invite you to look to find God in a wrinkly newborn who was using a food trough as a bed — and yet that is exactly where God showed up. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the rest of those involved were able to see God precisely because they were in a nontraditional place looking for God in nontraditional ways.

In fact, throughout Scripture, God often shows up in nontraditional ways in nontraditional places as long as people are willing to look for God in those places. More than that, the people who get too focused on tradition tend to miss the times when God shows up because their eyes are fixed on the tradi-tion instead of the God who has walked among us!

I missed the candlelight worship this Christmas Eve. It didn’t feel like Christmas without it, but in many ways this is the most traditional Christmas I’ve ever celebrated — a newborn baby in a strange place and God’s presence with us. I am thrilled to be a dad again and am looking forward to life with four kids. I have been cherishing every moment with our new baby girl and thank God for her. I love knowing that being her dad will give me the chance to learn new things constantly — and she has begun teaching me already by reminding me that Christmas is a time to look for God in (non)traditional places.

So, as we all move in to a new year and think about the traditions that will mark the next year, remind yourself that God is present both through and outside of your traditions! Keep your eyes open, because you never know when God is going to show up through a newborn baby in an out-of-the-way place like a stable.

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or andrew@courtlandumcva.org.