The longest journey on earth

How do you take something as familiar as the Christmas story and see it in a new way?

As I’ve traveled and talked with people over the last few weeks, I hear a common sentiment: “How do you make Christmas feel like Christmas?” We talk about all the reasons it doesn’t, from weather to busyness to distractions to commercialism.

Rather than just complain about why it doesn’t feel special, this year I did something different. I took a trip. Not the usual kind where you travel to see family or the exotic kind where you fly to Israel to spend Christmas in Bethlehem.

Instead, I chose to take one of the longest journeys on earth, traveling the twelve or so inches from my head to my heart. For therein lies the real problem: I understand intellectually what Christmas is about but have lost the soul-level knowledge of its deeper meaning.

To tackle this journey, I applied some of what I’ve learned about meaningful travel as follows:

  • Pray – Always a good starting point, but how God answers our prayers isn’t always what we expect.
  • Get a change of perspective – Travel provides distance and the ability to see things anew. I don’t have the geographical advantage of distance on this trip, so I needed some other adjustment. God provided this by waking me up in the middle of the night the last two nights. In both cases, being awake at an unusual time allowed me to think and pray about Christmas differently. It changed my perspective.
  • Reflect – I could have just ignored the thoughts about Christmas when I awoke in the night. But I intentionally took the ember  that God planted and fanned it through reflection for richer insights.
  • Know your destination – Here’s the hard one. I realized that my “destination” was to reclaim that special feeling of Christmas I had as a child. But there are two distinct problems with that. First, I don’t fit into those old PJs with the attached feet anymore. I can’t reclaim the past and go back, even through my own kids. I can enjoy their experience, but that’s not the same as mine. Second, I realized I am nostalgic for a Christmas that has more to do with Rudolf, Santa, family gatherings and presents than with the coming of the Son of God to earth. The heart of my problem in rediscovering the meaning of Christmas is that I’ve been looking in the wrong places.
  • Pay attention to details – When a story becomes so familiar it loses meaning, another way to gain a new perspective is to look at the details you may have glossed over before. Two things stand out this time with the real Christmas story:

First, the “great company of heavenly hosts” (Luke 2:13). Throughout most of the bible, angels show up in a onesy and twosy fashion. Here, there are a ton of them. And when they do show up elsewhere in Scripture, the reaction isn’t the “oh isn’t that cute” response we have to our kids dressed up as heavenly beings in the church’s Christmas pageant. The normal response is terror. So spend some time imagining what the shepherd’s witnessed and why the angels were doing this and I guarantee that at least the glimmerings of awe will creep into even the most Grinch-like of hearts.

Second, another detail I’ve passed by before is how people responded to the Christ child. Not just the shepherds and wise men (or Wise Guys as my son used to call them). But look at Simeon and Anna when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple on the eighth day (Luke 2:22-40). What struck me about this is that they all realized something I too often miss: This child is special.

I’ve missed the meaning of Christmas for so many years because I keep focusing on the day. I want the event to be special. What a little reflection and divine nudging this year showed me is that it isn’t the day that is special, it’s the Person. Even writing this sounds obvious and familiar, but like all good journeys it is how you get there that matters most.

I’ll share one additional insight about Christmas that relates to travel in the next entry. But for now, with only a few days left until Christmas, take time to get away from everything familiar about Christmas and make that long  journey from your own head to your heart in a new fashion. You may find that the end destination isn’t an old kind of nostalgia but a new kind of wonder.

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