I grew up in a family that knew how to celebrate Christmas. The atmosphere of our home in December—filled with traditions, decorations, cookies, laughter and anticipation—is something for which I am deeply grateful. The Christmas Eve journeys I made with my dad to deliver goodies and good will to forgotten people is as fresh in my memory today as it ever was. I realize that who I am was shaped in no small way by the Christmases of my childhood. And that was because Jesus was at the center of those celebrations. Somehow my parents were able to give us the thrills that children should experience at Christmas time without sacrificing the profound meaning of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I don’t think I’ve been able to match their mastery of this art, but as a dad and as a pastor I’ve given it my best shot.
Each year I read the Advent reflections of the great theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is one that particularly stirs me because it reflects the power of Christmas celebrated well. I remember my childhood Christmases from a comfortable position. Bonhoeffer sent this letter to his parents from a Nazi prison.
Dear parents…I don’t need to tell you how much I long for freedom and for you all. But over the decades you have provided for us such incomparably beautiful Christmases that my thankful remembrance of them is strong enough to light up one dark Christmas. Only such times can really reveal what it means to have a past and an inner heritage that is independent of chance and the changing of the times. The awareness of a spiritual tradition that reaches through the centuries gives one a certain feeling of security in the face of all transitory difficulties. I believe that those who know they possess such reserves of strength do not need to be ashamed even of softer feelings—which in my opinion are still among the better and nobler feelings of humankind—when remembrance of a good and rich past calls them forth. Such feelings will not overwhelm those who hold fast to the values that no one can take from them.
Never underestimate the power of the incarnation or the power of celebrating it. It has the potential to shape us and shape our children in ways that nothing else can. We must never squander the opportunity to connect the next generation to “an inner heritage that is independent of chance…a spiritual tradition that reaches through the centuries” and gives us security in the face of any trial.
Parents, as Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer did (and Tom and Ruby Stout), let’s use the Christmas season to give our children “the values that no one can take from them.”