“Where are you, Christmas?”

christmas market
The Christmas Market near Ku’damm in Berlin.

My dearest friends, acquaintances, and random people on the internet, I have some terrible news: Christmas is over. Today is December 29th, which means that we are now 361 days from our next Christmas. Thanks, Leap Year, for adding another day to our already-long Christmas wait.

We did our best to stretch it out and make it last. There were months of preparation, afternoons of shopping and crafting, hours of decorating and baking, miles put on the car or the Frequent Flyer miles compiled to visit relatives. Starting with Thanksgiving September, we listened to Christmas music, planned the decorations for our apartments and houses, and began plotting what gifts to buy our loved ones. And yet despite all of these attempts to extend our holiday season, Christmas cruelly reminded yet again us that it’s only 24 hours long, just like every other day of the year. And now here on Tuesday the 29th, the gifts have been unwrapped, the radio stations have ceased their Yuletide serenading, and many of us are already back at work, reminding us that soon—yes, very soon—life will return to its normal, everyday, often cheerless routine.

Now, I’m not trying to undersell Christmas or poo-poo it with a post-holiday depressed attitude. I actually had probably one of the most memorable and enjoyable Christmas seasons to date. After several weeks of enjoying Germany’s Christmas markets, I came home to Kansas and had a truly wonderful time with my family. We went to my Omi’s house and decorated Christmas cookies, we drove through our favorite neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights, and we even squeezed in a trip to Silver Dollar City, our favorite 1880s-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. Simple though it may seem, this Christmas with my family was truly lovely. And having been away from my parents since July—and from my sisters since far longer than that—I appreciated our time together this year even more than usual.

But now, whether I want to admit it or not, Christmas is over. In a little over a week, I’ll be flying back to Berlin, where the Christmas markets will have disappeared, the glühwein will be gone, and everyone will have settled back into their natural state of light-deprived semi-hibernation.

And now as I think about it, I can’t help but wonder: am I the only one who finds this a bit dissatisfying, if not anti-climactic? I mean, Christmas has the longest build-up of all the holidays. Can you name another holiday that has inspired so many songs (or so many covers of the same songs)? So many movies (and unnecessary sequels to those movies)? Can you think of another day of the year that is greeted with such anticipation by young and old, rich and poor, religious and agnostic alike? We go crazy for Christmas—some of us for months on end—and then before we know it, it’s over, and we’re left looking forward to this time next year, holding out the hope that maybe next Christmas will somehow last longer and be different.

I love Christmas. I truly do. But every year I experience this same discontented feeling. December 26th rolls around—talk about the most underappreciated day of the year—and I find myself wondering yet again, “Was that it?” Somehow it’s just never seemed fair to me that, after such a dramatic entrance, Christmas would just vanish so quickly without a trace. And I find this even more disappointing in light of so many of our favorite seasonal songs and movies, which remind us to have “the spirit of Christmas” and “keep Christmas in our hearts” all year long. Yes, I realize that these quotes come from cheesy, childish sources, and holiday movie specials are a poor choice for your life motto. But still for some reason, these phrases have always bothered me this year, and even more so this year. And now as I sit in my annual post-Christmas slump, I can’t seem to get them out of my head. Because it’s not just Disney who tells me these things; the Church does too, encouraging me to “live in light of Christmas” all year long. But what does that actually mean? And more importantly, how do we do it?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions for the last several days (getting a head start by thinking about them before Christmas Day. #efficiency). And while I don’t have a perfect, 5-step formula or a catchy slogan, I think I’m at least starting to arrive at an answer: Christmas leaves us, but Jesus never does. Let me explain.

In one sense, the post-Christmas funk is natural. Experiencing an emotional low after such a significant and highly-anticipated day makes complete sense. I bet Mary and Joseph even their own version of this after the very first Christmas. After all, if your labor pains result in a sky full of angels and a room full of worshipping shepherds, the reality of late-night feedings and diaper changings must have seemed a bit anti-climactic—and they were caring for the Son of God! But you see, for them Christmas wasn’t the end of a story; Christmas was the beginning of their lifetime being Jesus’ earthly parents.

I think the same principle applies to us today 2,000-some-odd years later. Christmas reminds us that Jesus has come to us, but, just like for Mary and Joseph, His presence didn’t end when the manger had been filled with feed again and the shepherds had returned to their sheep. And it doesn’t end for us either, even when the decorations and lights have been taken down and packed away for next year. It’s no accident that Matthew’s Gospel refers to Jesus as “Immanuel” or “God with us”. John puts it so beautifully, saying that Jesus “became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

You see, Jesus’ story with us began on Christmas and continues today. And I think it’s only by remembering and believing this truth—that He came to us, He loves us, and He is present with us now—that we can keep “the Christmas spirit” and its accompanying joy, anticipation, wonder, and awe alive with us every day of the year.

So even though Cindy Lou Who was right in asking, “Where are you, Christmas? Why can’t I find you?”, her natural feeling of confusion and loss was only part of the story. Because although Christmas has already come and gone, the One whom we celebrate hasn’t left us and never will.

Well, that’s enough for one day. I’m feeling hungry. Christmas cookies, anyone? 😉

 

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The Greatest Story Ever Told

We all love a good story, right? I bet if I were to ask you about your favorite movie, you might consider the quality of the acting (or maybe the actors themselves. After all, who doesn’t love a good Sandra Bullock flick?), you could think about the rating, the level of action, or how much it makes you laugh. But ultimately, my guess is that one feature will trump the others. And that is the story. Because after all is said and done, the acting, action, and laugh factor amount to nothing if they aren’t accompanied by a solid story. Yes, you may like a story-less film for a little while, you might even go to the midnight showing and Redbox it a few times. But in the end, the movies that stay high on your list for years to come, the ones that are worth paying the $19.96 to buy at Wal-Mart, the ones that you will watch over and over and over again and never get tired of—those movies are the ones with the best stories.

Although stories come in all shapes and sizes, the best stories have some common characteristics. First is conflict; without a conflict, there is no real story. The story must contain a problem that needs to be solved. This could be an enduring racism like in Remember the Titans or it might consist of Buddy the Elf searching for his father. Whatever form the conflict takes, it is absolutely essential to the structure of the story.

Next, the story must have a protagonist. Also known as the “hero,” this individual must not only be likeable, but also worthy of being liked. He or she should be a sympathetic character with whom the audience can identify at some level. More often than not, this person is simply an average human being of whom above average things are expected or demanded.

For every protagonist, there must be an antagonist. This is the opposite of the protagonist, the pepper to his or her salt. While the protagonist is good and praiseworthy, the antagonist is evil and despicable. The antagonist does everything within his power not only to thwart the protagonist’s plans, but also to destroy the hero himself.

This brings us to the fourth essential element to all great stories: A battle between good and evil. For anyone who’s taken an English class, you know this as the “climax.” Good and evil must fight against one another and, for the end to be “happy,” the good side must succeed. Even when plots become more complicated and the good and evil sides may not be so clear cut, we in the audience still have an inherent sense of how the story should go. And while not all stories have so-called happy endings, the stories we treasure the most do. Our favorite stories, those classic tales, all have resolutions in which good wins out in the end.

Moreover, the very best stories usually have a roundabout way of getting to that happy ending. We term this a “twist.” Something unexpected happens; it makes little to no sense at the time. But in the end, when we see the big picture, we understand the poetic beauty and plotline necessity of the twist, and we are grateful for it.

Now, I know you didn’t visit my blog (or accidentally stumble upon it) hoping to get a Cliff-notes English lesson, but bear with me a little longer. If all the great stories share the same basic characteristics—of conflict, protagonist, antagonist, and good v. evil—couldn’t you theoretically make the case that, while there are infinite stories in the world, they are all actually part of the same basic story? Yes, the names, locations, and specific plotlines do vary, but the essential gist of it, the bare bones, the heart of all stories are identical.

That’s no coincidence, my friends. Now let me tell you why.

You see, God is the ultimate Storyteller. Before He spoke anything else into existence, God was. And as an omniscient, all-knowing Being, He knew everything that would ever happen. So when He set the world into motion, when He breathed life into Adam and Eve, He was already weaving together the most incredible story imaginable—the story that would become the blueprint for all other stories. Here is that story.

God created Adam and Eve and gave them paradise. They had everything they could ever possibly want or need, and they had an unhindered relationship with God, their Creator, and with each other. Everything was perfect, as it was intended to be.

But then along came God’s enemy. Completely evil and full of hate, this enemy sought to sabotage God’s perfect plan. He deceived Adam and Eve and convinced them to reject God. They were kicked out of paradise. But God still loved His people and wasn’t finished with them yet. He had a plan to make everything right again: A King would come to save them.

After leaving paradise, humanity suffered and all of creation with it. Natural disasters, disease, pain, suffering and death became facts of life—facts that God never wanted to have happen. But because humans chose their way over God’s, He had to let them suffer for a time. Thousands of years passed, and things became worse and worse. It seemed as if God had forgotten His promise and His people.

And then, all of sudden, God directs the ultimate plot twist: He sends them a baby. An illegitimate baby born to unwed peasants from a poverty-stricken town barely on the map, while these parents were refugees a hundred miles from home. And because no one would take them in, this baby was born in an animal’s stall and placed in a feeding trough. As if that weren’t enough, shepherds (the lowest of the low) were the first to see him.

Oh, and one more minor detail: This baby is God Himself.

Crazy. But wait, there’s more.

This baby grows up, lives a perfect life, and willingly dies a criminal’s death on a cross. However, He didn’t stay dead. No, He rose from the grave and will come back one day to rule forever.

Now here comes the nuttiest part of all: To those who trust in Him as their Savior, He purifies them and makes them white as snow. His death takes our place, and we get to live with Him forever in a restored paradise.

That, my friends, is the greatest story of all, and it’s the only story that really matters. And the best part is that God created and planned this story, so that you could be a part of it and—most importantly—so that you could have a relationship with Him. So the choice is yours: Do you want to write your own story, hoping for a happy ending? Or will you trust in the greatest Storyteller to write you into His, which guarantees happiness without end?

Merry Christmas and God bless.