Recovering the Lost Purpose of Christmas

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(© Istockphoto/losw)

The stream of tears would not stop. Standing before the plastic hospital crib, I was overcome by the magnitude of the moment. My wife had just given birth to our first child. We were now more than husband and wife; we were parents. Our little girl had come a week early, and my parents had made it just in time after almost 30 hours of airplanes, airports and the hassle of international travel.

And time began to blur. I was a baby in my parents’ arms. Now I am a father, standing before my daughter. One day she may be a mother, and we would stand beside her. Feelings I had not known before overtook me. A love and warmth cascaded over me from the heavens. I stood there in silence and wept.

For most of life, time pushes us on, clicking down the minutes, making us count the hours and the days, forcing us ahead. It presses from behind us, hurrying us past the present, making us long or dread or avoid what lies ahead. Our heads hang low, our eyes cast down, the world becoming smaller and smaller with each ticking second.

But there are moments when the heavens open up, when time’s tyranny is overthrown. Our eyes are drawn up by something we cannot always name. Standing over little Sophia that day, time stopped pushing and the sky opened up.

It isn’t just the birth of a child; all moments of beauty and wonder can have this effect. Reaching a mountain summit, catching a glimpse of a rare creature, being enveloped in a symphony’s overture, standing before a great piece of art … these are all moments that are more than moments, instances in time that are somehow beyond time, occurrences inspace that somehow lift us beyond space. We are here staring at the sunset, holding a baby, embracing a lover, walking with a friend—and yet, we are somewhere else. Maybe it isn’t that these moments scramble the linear march of time and pry open the heavens. Maybe it’s just that sometimes we slow down and look up.

Under a Closed Heaven

And yet we don’t. When I meet with people, I hear about the busyness of life, the chaos of managing schedules and expectations that come cascading in from all sides. There is a mournful nostalgia in their eyes and a wistfulness in their voice as they recall the moments of wonder that once graced their lives. The truth is, I know this feeling well because it’s not just in the people I meet with; it’s in my own heart.

Where has the wonder gone? Have we forgotten how to stand in awe? What does it mean to adore?

Hauntingly, the whisper in our soul grows louder.

There was a time when worship was part of the fabric of daily life. There was a day when the question was not, “Do you worship God?” but “Which god do you worship?” or “How do we—or how should we—worship God?” But as the eminent philosopher Charles Taylor argues in his lengthy tome, A Secular Age, transcendence is no longer a “given.” It isn’t an assumed starting point; it is a contested “take” on reality. We inhabit an “immanent frame,” a sense of dwelling in a “closed” world.

Calvin College’s James K.A. Smith compares this to a football game in a dome with a retractable roof. It’s one thing to say that the roof is closed; it’s another thing to say that they were too preoccupied with the action on the field to notice the absence of the stars overhead.

So, if we have lost the sense of there being anything or anyone worthy of worship—a transcendence in its pure sense—then have we also forgotten how to worship?

“Maybe for some people,” you say. “But we, we are Christians!” Yet even for those of us who cling to transcendence in faith, who believe that there is a God in heaven whose Son came to earth and whose Spirit now dwells in us, it can be difficult to live with wonder and therefore to worship. The clutter and the noise have made us forget that there are stars up above, that there are angels singing in the heavens. Everything about our daily life is an acquiescence to a “closed roof” overhead.

Perhaps for the first time, Christians work and play and buy and sell and live in a world that presumes the absence of transcendence. Resistance is nearly impossible. We mark time in the same mundane way—by work and days off, by busyness and emptiness—and live with the same hollowness. Yes, God is “out there,” we believe; but He has become merely a providential benefactor and an end-time judge, not a “very present help in times of trouble,” and less still, Emmanuel—God with us.

So the question grows louder still: What happened to wonder? Have we forgotten how to adore?

Written by Glenn Packiam
Read more at Charisma Magazine

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