The magic of Christmas takes on different forms as one ages. Its frequency of return seems set to the highest speed.
So how does the wonderment of Jesus coming into the world keep happening year after year for those who claim to follow him throughout the year?
Emily Hunter McGowin nudges followers of Jesus nearer to the mystery of the Incarnation in her book Christmas: The Season of Life and Light.
The small, hardcover book is the fourth of six volumes in the “Fullness of Time” series, edited by Esau McCauley, from InterVarsity Press. The series follows the seasons of the church year.
“At the center of the mystery of Christmas is the astonishing fact that God has come to dwell with us,” writes McGowin.
“God has seen fit to grace our world with God’s presence — not just once but for all time — in Jesus Christ.”
Ministers know the challenge of elevating and clarifying this mystery of mysteries — year after year — in a season filled with distractions and busyness.
Individual followers of Jesus must seek intentional ways to keep a spiritual focus among the many social expectations.
McGowin, who grew up in a non-religious home without a sense of the holiday’s spiritual purpose, now teaches theology at Wheaton College. Also, she is a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others.
In the book, she calls for more than just seasonal escapism.
“It is precisely the real stuff of daily life — even the heavily commercialized season of Christmas — that God means to redeem in Christ,” she writes.
Seeing and experiencing the Christmas season within the cycle of the Christian year brings a fuller understanding of and encounter with God, she suggests.
“Each season reveals something more of God’s truth, goodness and beauty” — though we will never fully comprehend the fullness of God, she writes.
“Christmas reveals to us the God of the great exchange,” she continues, “the God of the poor, the God of creation and re-creation, the God of life and light, the God of the creche and the cross.”
She proposes the book’s chapters as “an entryway into the liturgical season of Christmas … by meditating on what the scriptures, practices and prayers of the season reveal about God.”
Looking historically, McGowin notes how Christmas has long been “an embattled holiday.” There is irony in that wording, of course.
The manufactured and nonsensical “war on Christmas” — ginned up by Fox News Channel and others in recent years — seeks to portray Americanized Christians as victims of Starbucks cups.
However, this fake war contrasts with how the season was previously viewed.
Historically, “many Christians viewed Christmas as a thoroughly debauched and godless season,” she noted.
She notes how uncertainty over Jesus’ birthdate, a pagan-holiday theory regarding December 25, and the absence of Christmas observance by the early church have impacted the season’s celebration today.
“From very early on the church has felt compelled to celebrate the birth of God’s son — and rightly so,” she writes. “It happens they chose a date on which to do so sometime in the fourth century.”
Christmastide evolved to include a longer season of celebrations, she notes, with an intentional spiritual purpose.
“Viewed in themselves, these holy days aren’t pagan in orientation,” she writes. “They were established to direct our hearts and minds to the story of Christ and his people — and to place our lives and communities within the sacred narrative.”
McGowin moves readers from the background of Christmas to its practices today — where family and faith traditions take various shapes. Some aspects enhance the spiritual significance while others distract from it.
Gift giving, she notes, has been and is a part of the Christmas season just about anywhere Christ’s birth is celebrated. Its inspiration is tied to the Magi bringing gifts to Jesus.
The theologian affirms that “the truth of the incarnation at the heart of Christmas requires a basic understanding of what Christians confess” about Jesus.
She frames the Incarnation in gift-giving terms — calling it “the great exchange” or “wonderful gift.”
“The great exchange requires all of God to be united to all of humankind for all eternity,” she writes. “That’s why Christians confess that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God, united in one person forever and ever.”
As the book unfolds, McGowin provides both information and inspiration for readers to meet this season of significance better prepared for its fuller meaning. And indeed it is a season among seasons.
“Placing Christmas in this larger context helps us resist the cultural tendency to freeze the cherubic baby Jesus in time, romanticized and sentimentalized beyond recognition,” she writes.
It is the “expansive, all-encompassing story” of Jesus, she notes, that is “truly good news for all humankind.”
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.