If I had the funds and the electrical ingenuity, mine would be one of those houses that can be seen from outer space at Christmastime. I love the lights the most. The bigger and crazier the display, the more I want to drive by it. Light displays are my guilty Christmas pleasure.
But maybe it shouldn't be so guilty. God doesn't seem to find unsparing celebration problematic at all, when the celebration is about Him.
In 2 Samuel, David celebrates the return of the ark of the covenant. He celebrates jubilantly, making sacrifices and dancing in the streets before God's ark. It's a vibrant parade, and David is the grand marshall. His wife doesn't appreciate the dance, and the Bible says she despises him in her heart for his undignified display. It's a drama-filled story, but what does it have to do with Christmas? (Here is the story, if you would like to read it.)
The ark represented God's presence with His people. It held His covenant to be their God and guide them. When Exodus says a mercy seat covers the ark, it literally means “atonement seat.” Here, God met his people to broker reconciliation. For the Israelites, being without the ark meant being without an approachable God. Now, they felt they were bringing God's presence back. David had reason to celebrate.
Christmas celebrates the place where God met with His people to reconcile finally, completely, with full atonement.
In His birth, Jesus provided a new and eternal mercy seat—Himself. Instead of an ark, a stable cradled a new covenant.
We have good reason to celebrate, and to celebrate wildly. David's rapturous dance before the Ark poured from his adoration of God. It sprung out of his gratitude that God allowed his presence to be with His people.
Certainly our Christmas celebrations should be equally full of crazy, abundant gratitude. Our celebrations should “Make your faithfulness known through all generations” and “declare that your love stands firm forever” (Psalm 891-2). Letting something be known, making a declaration, dancing in the streets—these are all unabashed actions. It's OK—it's good—to make a big deal out of the fact that Jesus declared his presence among people with a cry in a manger.
There is no room in the season for a Michal who shakes her head at the joy and mutters, “Why so much?”
So how do we know when the big deal is about us and when is it about Jesus? We know the same way David did. When we are decorating trees or baking cookies out of the gratitude in our hearts that God is with us—we are celebrating like David. When we do it because we're supposed to or we want to impress someone, we're just having a holiday.
When we're staring at the twinkling lights and reminding God (and ourselves) that we want to be all in in this new covenant, we're celebrating like David. When we're thinking instead about all the blacked-out spaces on our calendar, we're enduring a season.
When we're giving gladly to those we love, and to strangers who need it most, we're celebrating like David. When we spend money we don't have on people who don't need it, we're following customs rather than Jesus.
And when we're judging other peoples' celebrations— we're being Michal. We're pretending to enjoy the holiday, but we're not celebrating Emmanuel. God with us.
Bright lights aren't the point of Christmas; they're a nice byproduct. When I can watch their colors arc across the darkness of a December night, I think of the Light of the World who arced across our darkness to bring His presence and mercy. I may even dance a little.