Our traditional journey from Christmas to Epiphany and beyond features a transition from looking at decorations to looking through an incarnational lens to see everything else.
I hope I don’t outgrow my enjoyment of the lights and other decorations that enhance the expectations of Christmas.
That experience is rooted in early memories of finding just the right tree from among the new pines at the edge of the pasture at my grandparents’ farm and decorating it with a few lights, some tinsel and garlands of popcorn strung with needle and thread.
Christmas decoration has come a long way in the 70-plus years since then, but the artistry of decoration retains its function as a reminder of the hope, joy, peace and love of Christmas, at least for me.
With our decorations, both elaborate and simple, we make our space a beautiful and sacred setting for engaging the meaning of the season. Who would want to be without this enhancement or without appreciation for those who make the effort to provide it?
When the decorations come down, the experience they point us to transitions from something beautiful to look at, to a transforming lens to look through, to see the sacredness of God’s infusion into all of creation.
Through the lens of covenant faith that is specially focused in the incarnation of Christmas we have a chance to see things differently:
- The “other” that we might fear becomes the neighbor we can love.
- The natural world we might abuse becomes a garden we are commissioned to tend.
- The bounty of effort we might hoard becomes a resource to be shared.
- The challenges that would harm us become the arenas for cooperative community that can discover new realms of recovery and reconciliation.
It is not hard to imagine that our recent experience of Christmas might become a lens through which we can see the prospects and challenges of the new year. Choosing it, however, is not as easy as it might seem.
There have been and will continue to be other lenses vying for our acceptance and use in looking to the year. The lens we look through has everything to do with what we will see.
Lenses that focus on fear, insecurity, privilege and divisiveness – all with an agenda and all seeking to limit the focus of our vision and understanding – have a powerful influence on who we are and where we are going as we journey forward. The marketing of these lenses is quite effective.
A “Christmas lens,” by contrast, provides a range of vision for a future that is both penetratingly precise and expansively broad.
The images of the Gospels’ nativity stories illustrate that range, from the radical particularity of a helpless infant whose crib is a borrowed feeding trough to the universality of a star that transcends all of creation, affirming the sacredness of everything in between.
The real Christmas story of the Bible is not just about shepherds who come in from the fields near Bethlehem to visit the manger and wise men from afar who bring gifts. It is also about what happens when the shepherds go back to their flocks and fields and when the wise men go back home.
We are left to speculate on “what happened” then in the wake of that early Christmas experience and the lens it provided to its testimony going forward.
But we can observe the presence of a perspective that looked through its lens and that has survived the rise and fall of empires, the coming and going of benevolent kings and tyrants alike, and the devastation of natural and historical catastrophes.
At a threshold of a future fraught with both challenge and possibility, a “Christmas lens” is available with ample instruction also available as to how it might be polished and used.
That’s where we are, and the lens is ours to choose. May we choose wisely.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).