I was raised a Jehovah’s witness, so Christmas – for me – was a time of great conflict. I loved everything about Christmas, but was not able to express that openly, in my home.
All children have a tendency toward materialism, so it was inevitable that I enjoyed the fact that my mother allowed me to spend winter vacation at my grandparents. My family’s version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” was that my somewhat-liberal JW mother never inquired about how I spent my time at my grandparents – though it was no secret that neither of my grandparents would ever respect my mother’s wishes that they not encourage or allow me to celebrate Christmas, while I was at their homes.
For my part, I enjoyed the smell of my own personal Christmas tree; I enjoyed the eggnog; I enjoyed the music; I enjoyed the presents – but since my grandparents weren’t church-goers, I never knew much of what it meant to worship on Christmas.
Thirty-five years ago I celebrated Christmas freely, for the very first time. I can still remember the first night I sat in the sanctuary at Bethel, listening to the Sanctuary Choir singing “Jesus, the Light of The World.” I had just accepted Christ a few weeks before; and was in a church service for the first time since I was about five years old.
I think it was important to my faith that God led me to church during the Christmas season, because it is one of the times when we sing our most sacred music – for me, the Christmas hymns, anthems, and cantatas are like miniature sermons.
I joined the Sanctuary Choir right after I completed Orientation, and sang with them even after I’d started preaching. Of course, Christmas and Easter were my favorite times, musically.
Over the years, I have developed a deeper and deeper affinity for the sacred things of our faith. For as much as has taken us away from God’s Presence, we are truly where He wants us to be when we are communing with Him, heart-to-heart, mouth-to-mouth, breath-to-breath. For me, Christmas is the time when He embraces us and tells us, “I love you,” all over again.
Today I live in China …
Five years ago, when I came here I was surprised when I went into Wal-Mart and saw many of the familiar trappings of Christmas: trees, wreaths, stockings, and Santa. The store on the ground floor of the building where I lived had a giant Christmas display, including a sleigh. The city of Nanchang hangs Christmas lights on the city’s streetlamps.
One thing I noticed about Christmas in China, however, was the music. Just as one might expect in a Communist country, in 2005 you never heard sacred Christmas music: just songs like “Jingle Bells,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Today Christmas is a very big event in China. The State-run TV station CCTV9 has been running segments the past week about how Chinese merchants are prospering this Christmas season. One store put forth as an example reported his sales are averaging more than 100,000 yuan per day throughout this year’s Christmas shopping season. Needless to say for the overwhelming majority Christmas is just another big commercial day – a chance to exploit the country’s newfound wealth – but it is not the everyday Chinese who are heave on my heart, it is the Chinese Christians.
When we started the ministry at the great Commission Center, I realized that the brothers and sisters there had never heard “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” or “Joy to the World,” or Silent Night,” or “O Come Let Us Adore Him;” far less “The Hallelujah Chorus,” or “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” For Christmas 2006, at the Great Commission Center I prepared a sermon that would introduce a medley of sacred Christmas music. Unfortunately, the message had to be cancelled because another of the house fellowships had asked to use the Center for their Christmas party.
I thought back to that evening, a few days ago, when two of my students at the university asked me if I’d like to attend the English Club’s Christmas party, on Friday night. It was the fourth Christmas party I’d been invited to this year. The thing that troubled my spirit about the invitations this year is not that Christmas parties are a bad thing, even for the Church. But I found myself thinking about the message of Christmas.
One of the students who invited me to the party revealed that he is a Christian. He attends one of the large State-sanctioned “Three-Self” churches (三自教会 sānzì jiàohuì). I have met Christians from this same church, who have told me on Christmas the crowds swell out of the door; but that they seriously wish they could hear and learn the “deeper things” of the Gospel.
These guys have had to rely on largely-untrained lay preachers – and government-appointed pastors, sworn not to offend the Party. What really concerned me is that we worship free of these political recriminations, but in so many ways we too have lost sight of the sacredness of this day.
Reflecting back, today, it occurred to me that 2010 was the largest commercial retail success ever. The National Retail Federation predicts spending this holiday season will reach $451.5 billion, according to the Washington Post. More amazing to me was reading today that the Central Party Committee and other
Chinese “intellectuals” are having conversations about the Church in China. Of course no one expects that China will become South Korea, where some churches minister to over 300,000 members; but the independent house church movement in China is growing phenomenally, which is encouraging.
Here’s the question: with the Body of Christ turning so forcefully toward the materialistic, who will be there to speak for the Gospel?
More to come …