Yesterday I stowed the last box of Christmas decorations safely into the attic for another year’s slumber. I’ll miss them. I love decorations. I love the smell of a Christmas tree, the twinkle of lights, and the walk down memory lane each ornament provides. But next year, they will mean more to me than ever. Here’s why…
This year I found myself wondering how to tackle the Christmas story during our Wednesday Evening Bible Study. Every preacher knows the struggle — “What do I tell these people about a story they’ve heard a thousand times?” It’s the curse of familiarity.
In a last moment inspiration, I departed from doing a Bible study and instead explored the meaning of common Christmas decorations. It was fascinating. I was blown away at the richness of symbols we are surrounded by at Christmas.
We explored the meaning and history behind Christmas trees, Advent wreaths, Chrismons, nativity sets and lots of assorted small decorations. In the end, what I realized is that almost all of these traditions were initially appropriated from other traditions or created to be educational. They were intended not just to add aesthetic beauty to the holiday season, but to point people to the Word of God and to biblical truths. The intent was education, not just decoration.
For example, many hymns, paintings, and nativity sets include an ox and an ass. When present they are together and look closely at Jesus. In fact, the earliest known nativity artwork is a relief sculpture that is nothing more than the baby Jesus in a manger flanked by an ox at his head and ass at his feet (see picture below). Though these animals inseparably abound, neither is referenced in the Jesus birth stories. The prevalence of these images over centuries from some of the earliest art and hymns ought to beg the question, Why?
These animals are included as a reference to a scripture in Isaiah,
‘The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood.’
The ox commonly symbolizes Israel. The ass commonly symbolized Gentiles. We find the two, ox and ass, united by the crib of Jesus to represent there is no longer Jew and Gentile. God has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile in Christ Jesus. The image is profoundly prophetic for who Christ is and what he will do, but we don’t see it.
Unfortunately, for most of us, the radiant trimmings of Christmas have gone from being rich symbols to just meaningless decor. This is so sad. What a wonderful opportunity each item presents for telling the gospel story.
A HAPPY MOMENT
The Sunday following my lesson, as I prepared for worship a Sunday school class of elementary students ambled into the Sanctuary with their teacher. I wondered what they were doing. To my delight, the teacher brought them over to the Chrismon tree and began talking with them about the many symbols on it. Why did we put them up? What did they mean? To what part of the story of Jesus birth did they point? They’re discussion brought the story alive and grafted it upon their hearts. How beautiful.
SOMETHING TO PONDER
Lastly, I wonder if we can’t learn a lesson about our faith in general from this insight. Can our faith become just pretty trappings? Can our Christianity become so familiar to us that it’s meaning is lost?
I am left asking myself, “Is my discipleship just for show, or does it meaningfully speak to others? Does my discipleship help me look better or help people see Jesus?”
What about you — decoration or education?
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