Sentimentalizing, Sanitizing, and Spiritualizing Christmas

Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to overstate the significance of the Incarnation.

Writers, philosophers, poets, and composers through the centuries have searched in vain for words that adequately capture the wonder, mystery, beauty, and power of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us.

The miracle and meaning of the Incarnation can be so difficult to grasp that we can give up and start to view Christmas in ways that leave us impoverished and unimpressed with the real story. Even in the church our songs and reflections about about Christmas can fail to leave people gasping in amazement or humbled in awe that God would come to dwell among us.

Sometimes we sentimentalize Christmas.
Sentimentalism is focusing on the sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas that give us good feelings. Dazzling decorations, fresh baked sugar cookies, poinsettias, family get-togethers, gift shopping, twinkling lights, Christmas carols, cards from friends, tree-cutting expeditions, wrapping presents. Of course, all these Christmas traditions are an expression of common grace, for which we can joyfully thank God. My family has developed a few of our own over 30+ years and I look forward to them every year. But man-made traditions aren’t the whole story, or even the main story of Christmas, and they fail to solve our deepest problems or fulfill our deepest needs.

Sometimes we sanitize Christmas.
We sanitize Christmas when we only present a picture-perfect, storybook rendition of what took place in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Kind of like the picture above. The straw in the manger is fresh and clean. There’s no umbilical cord to cut and no blood. It’s a “silent night.” The surroundings are strangely free from the pungent odor of manure. Joseph and Mary are calm, cool, and collected. Everyone gets a good night’s sleep. There’s no controversy or gossip surrounding the birth. It’s a pleasant, appealing way to think about Christmas, but obscures the foulness, uncertainty, and sin that Jesus was born into. We forget that rather than coming for the put-together, well-to-do, and self-sufficient, Jesus identified with the rejected, the slandered, the helpless, and the poor.

Sometimes we spiritualize Christmas.
Spiritualizing Christmas is ignoring Christmas as earth-shattering history and using it simply to promote general virtues like brotherhood, peace, joy, generosity, and love. And tolerance, of course. Again, it’s evidence of God’s common grace and a reason to give thanks that our culture sets aside a time of year, however commercialized it might be, to celebrate and commend loving your neighbor. But the fruit of Christmas is impossible to achieve or sustain apart from the root. We understand what love is by looking not to ourselves and our good deeds, but by considering Jesus, who came into the world to lay down his life for us (1 John 3:16). Preaching or singing about peace without recognizing our need for the Prince of Peace, is a shallow peace indeed.

By this time, most of us have already made our choices about what Christmas means to us and how we’re going to present it to others. But Christmas comes every year. And it’s not too early to start thinking about next year.

More importantly, the glory of God becoming man was never meant to be marginalized to a few weeks. It means something cataclysmic every day.

  • Jesus, the eternal Son of God who before time was worshiped by countless angels, set aside his glory and entered the world through the birth canal of a young woman he had created.
  • He came not into a 21st century environment with trained doctors, sterilized instruments and fetal monitors, but into a 1st century cave filled with flies, animal excrement, and filth.
  • The fullness of deity took of residence in the body of a baby gasping for its first breath.
  • The one who spoke the universe into existence lay silent, unable to utter a word.
  • He came by choice and with the sole intention of redeeming a fallen and rebellious race through his perfect obedience, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection.

If we have the privilege of leading others in corporate worship at Christmas, let’s be sure to help them understand why nothing is more wonderful about Christmas than Christ himself.

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
Begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. (Nicene Creed)

The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word)

He deigns in flesh t’appear, widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near, and make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know, for God is manifest below. (Charles Wesley)

The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven; was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin’s womb, to live on the earth, and hang upon the cross, and yet always filled the world as from the beginning. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II, xiii, 4)

See the eternal Son of God, immortal Son of Man,
Now dwelling in an earthly clod whom Heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, look at this! See the Lord of earth and skies
Low humbled to the dust He is, and in a manger lies! (Charles Wesley)

Herein is wisdom; when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
and no intellect to devise recovery, he came,
God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost
as man to die my death,
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect righteousness for me. (The Valley of Vision)

Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. (Charles Wesley)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn. 1:14) 

O come, let us adore him.





14 Responses to Sentimentalizing, Sanitizing, and Spiritualizing Christmas

  1. Ken Boer December 24, 2012 at 1:37 PM #

    Thanks for writing this, Bob. It is astounding.

    I love the Wesley hymn you quoted above.

    “Our God contracted to a span
    Incomprehensibly made man.”

    • Bob Kauflin December 24, 2012 at 1:48 PM #

      Thanks, Ken. I originally was going to post that line from the Wesley hymn but ended up liking the other verse even more!

  2. Alison December 24, 2012 at 4:03 PM #

    I love the connections between history, Scripture, and the hymns to paint a vivid picture of what really happened. I DO stand, fall, weep in awe of God coming to dwell among man in the form of a helpless baby. So much of Jesus’ entry into the world shows me the state of my own heart! Filthy, crowded, restless…each of us needs that peace and indwelling. I pray that my husband and I can share this awesome story with our children. They are showing faith that is true and growing; that is the best gift I could ask for as a mom! I pray for all who don’t yet know that joy and love!!

  3. Nancy Guthrie December 24, 2012 at 6:40 PM #

    Bob: I’ve been thinking about something the pastor said yesterday at church that goes along with what you’re saying—that atheism is not a threat to our Christmas, but sentimentalism is. And you’ve added two other threats to guard against. Thanks for this.
    Nancy (yes, that Nancy, not the other Nancy)

    • Bob Kauflin December 24, 2012 at 7:44 PM #

      Nancy, thanks for your encouraging words. Agree with your pastor that the enemies of the faith are often more subtle than we realize.

      Yep, I knew right away who you were. How’s that radio program going…

  4. Mark December 25, 2012 at 1:09 AM #

    As I find my way through my first Christmas as a non-believer, this post was actually very helpful. After 40 years of sentiment and spiritualization (I never tried to sanitize it), I realize that it really is those sentimental qualities and the sense of brotherhood/peace/joy that I value most about this season.

    Tonight, I sat through a beautiful Christmas Eve service at a church where the pastor is a dear friend. I was moved by the music and touched by the candlelight. I sang along, participated in the responsive reading, and lit my candle from the advent wreath, just like everyone else. (I will confess an awkward moment as I had to walk past my friend to refuse communion.)

    This post helped me to see that I do, in fact, accept “the fruit” without believing in “the root.”

    • Bob Kauflin December 25, 2012 at 8:49 AM #

      Mark, thanks for commenting. I don’t know your history and how you came to be a non-believer. I don’t know what kind of church and relational experiences you’ve had, but I’m sure there were many steps in the process that led you to think that you could no longer believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord and only Savior of the world.

      The “fruit” that you and many others enjoy would be non-existent apart from the mercy, kindness, and goodness of God, revealed most clearly to us in giving Jesus Christ to take the judgment we deserved. If Jesus was not who he claims to be in Scripture, then we’re free to live on our own terms and be our own gods, deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong. But if Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, who actually walked this earth in the first century, bore our sins on the cross, and rose from the dead, then what Peter claims in Acts 4:12 is true: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The alternatives to Jesus being the Savior are all pitiful attempts to be our own saviors. History, my experience, and most importantly Scripture, all teach us those efforts will only end in dismal failure.

      I urge you with everything in me to consider again your need for God’s mercy offered to us in Jesus Christ. I’d be happy to continue this conversation further offline if you want to email me at the contact link above. Matters of this significance aren’t easily handled in a comment section of a blog.

      Thanks, Mark. I pray you soon come to know the peace and truth that only Jesus can provide.

  5. Deb January 2, 2013 at 1:32 PM #

    For me, Christmas is all about remembering AND walking in God’s love and peace… and how He went about providing it. This year more than any other year. So thankful for His love! We have an incredible Father!

  6. Brandon Smith January 6, 2013 at 8:10 PM #

    Thanks for this. It’s after Christmas now, but needed nonetheless!

  7. Mary Ann Grimshaw January 8, 2013 at 7:28 PM #

    Bob I love the way you laid it all out how Jesus came to earth and became a child still holding His rank in Heaven. Not losing anything even when a child. He couldn’t speak but I’m sure He was fully aware. I never really thought of it the way you posted. Very interesting. I hope it doesn’t make a difference or copy right but I want to copy what you stated especially the Wesley hymn. Very very interestering.

  8. Naomi January 15, 2013 at 7:57 AM #

    Many good thoughts here.

    I don’t know why writers always seem to miss this point, but probably because the writers are usually men. Every girl dreams of the day she will be married. It is her big party in life. She dreams about the details. Mary gave all that up. She gave up her good name and the blessings of relatives that would have been hers at a wedding.


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