The Deeper Joy of Christmas

Amidst the cheery carols and tame Nativity scenes, it’s easy to forget how earth-shattering Christmas is. To grasp the deeper joy of this season, we need to remember how Christmas arrived two thousand years ago — amidst doubt and fear, scandal and pain, oppression and sorrow.

When the announcement came to an unmarried young woman that she would bear God’s Son, the timing couldn’t be worse. Her pregnancy was scandalous. And the birth would not go as planned. Forced by government decree to an overcrowded city, away from home and family, she and her fiancé couldn’t even find a proper room. (Didn’t he say he had relatives here?)  “Favored one,” the angel had called her, but here she was, relegated to a cattle shed. “Your son will be great,” was the promise — so empty-sounding now as she lay her fragile, fussy baby in a feeding trough. Surely the one who would deliver Israel wasn’t supposed to arrive this way.

The announcement came like a thunderbolt to nearby shepherds. As they faithfully kept the night watch, a terrifying spectacle pierced the darkness: a flash of light, an angel with a strange message, and suddenly a whole army spread across the heavens. As quickly as they had come, they were gone. The awestruck shepherds must have looked at each other in wonder, even confusion. Why had this message been entrusted to them? Uneducated men. Roughnecks. Their faces leathered by years. The scent of the fields always about them. By every social measure, they were nobodies. Who would believe their story? Surely the good news of God had better witnesses than these.

The Birth of Jesus With Shepherds, Jesus Mafa (image credit)

For God-fearing foreigners, the announcement came dimly and mysteriously. Philosophers and proto-scientists, the Magi had searched the stars for centuries, carefully recording their movements, watching for the sign of a Promised One. When it finally appeared, did their long waiting give way to doubt? This was no angelic broadcast from the heavens. It was a cryptic message written in dark, distant skies. And a journey to Israel would be long and dangerous. Would their neighbors scoff? What would their professional colleagues say? Surely they weren’t expected to risk everything — fortunes, reputations, their very lives — for this new king.

For some Bethlehem families, there was no announcement. Only terrified screams, smashed doors, wild-eyed soldiers, the glint of steel — and precious, innocent lives snuffed out. How do you comfort mothers and fathers who have lost children? What is God’s answer to tyranny, to terrorism, to evil? Surely these grieving families felt the suffocating grip of life’s most painful questions. If there is a God, why do the innocent suffer? If Christ indeed has come, then where is justice?

This was the first Christmas. The arrival of Jesus turned the world upside down. Does it still have that effect today?

The Morning Star (image credit)

We journey through the darkness of Advent so we can experience the deeper joy of Christmas. Not fleeting joy. Not a joy that ebbs with season and flows with circumstance. But joy rooted in faith — faith that wrestles with God and refuses to let go. Joy rooted in hope, in holding fast to God’s promises even when — especially when — they seem so distant, so painful, so impossible. 

It’s the joy of Mary receiving an impossible message and yet crying out in song, “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior” (Luke 1:47).

It’s the joy of shepherds, still quaking with fear, who go searching for Jesus and when they find him, can’t help but tell everyone they know (Luke 2:15-20).

It’s the joy of the Magi who, after journeying through long dark nights, find themselves at the doorstep of Jesus suddenly and inexplicably “filled with joy” (Matthew 2:10).

It is joy that rises out of ache and ashes, knowing that God hears the cries of those who suffer, that He will establish justice, that death will not have the last word because God-in-flesh, the babe born that night, came Himself to die and be raised again to conquer death itself (Psalm 10; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26).

This is what it means to celebrate Christmas. Not to escape the darkness of the world, but to look to the Light that came amidst that darkness. “The light shines in the darkness,” John’s Gospel proclaims, “and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:5). As Jesus would later tell his followers, “In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

The joy of Christmas is the joy of Christ — the realization that Christ has come, that God is with us. So rejoice! Take heart! Be of good cheer! It’s good news, wonderful, joyous news! Our Savior is born today in David’s city. And He has conquered the world.

From Holidays to Holy Days

They seem to come earlier, faster, and busier every year.

For most Americans, the holidays kick off with Thanksgiving in late November, ramp up for Christmas, and culminate with new year’s celebrations on January 1.

Christmas dominates this season, fueled by the insatiable economics of consumption. Holiday ad blitzes. Black Friday deals. Overcrowded malls.

There are the traditions to keep, too. The tree needs putting up. The house needs decorating. There are parties to throw, treats to bake, carols to practice. Add in the stresses of family, especially extended family, and it’s no wonder many feel overwhelmed at this time of year.  

As Christians, we aren’t immune to the rampant commercialism and busied distractions of the season. But Christmas should hold much deeper meaning for us. We celebrate the coming of a Savior and the promise that He will someday return, redeem His people, and repair the brokenness of our world.

For Christians the holidays are truly holy days. Yet how quickly we lose sight of this. How easily we are drawn away by the secular glitz and glamour of the season.

It shouldn't be this way.

The Church Calendar

For hundreds of years, Christians have marked time intentionally — not by whatever happens to be going on around them, but by centering their calendar on Christ. Through time, the church has observed an annual cycle called the Church Calendar or Christian Year. The seasons of the Calendar correspond to key events in the life of Christ: His birth, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming. (Learn more at our Church Calendar page.) 

The Church Calendar was developed as a way to aid the spiritual formation of believers, imparting a sacred rhythm to our time and activities. As the seasons of the Christian Year orient our hearts toward Christ, we're reminded that we live in what Dallas Willard called a "God-bathed world." The whole earth is full of God's glory. Even our Calendar is holy.

We often call the late-November-to-early-January time period simply “the holidays.” But the church for centuries has observed two distinct holy seasons during this time: Advent and Christmas.

York Minster with Advent wreath (image credit)

Advent and Christmas

Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and continues through Christmas Eve. Christmas, of course, begins on December 25, but it doesn't end there. The period called Christmastide continues for twelve days and ends on January 5. It gives way to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, which celebrates the Magi’s visit to the Christ child.

Advent is a season of preparation, Christmas is a season of celebration.

Advent is a time of expectancy, hope, and repentance, a season when we look ahead to Christ’s Second Coming even as we prepare to celebrate His birth two thousand years ago.

Christmas is a time of merriment and joy, when we give gifts, play games, sing carols, eat together, and rejoice that our Redeemer has come and will come again.  

Each of these seasons is marked in its own way, and each has its own set of practices. Some of the traditions are serious, even somber. Some are just plain fun. All are designed to imbue our time and activity with sacred meaning, to remind us of the deeper significance of the seasons and point us to Christ.  

Advent is a season of preparation,
Christmas is a season of celebration.

Catholics and mainline Protestants are familiar with Advent and Christmas and the traditions around them. But for many evangelicals, Advent may be unfamiliar territory, and the “twelve days of Christmas” are something they’ve heard about only in a song. 

At, we invite all Christians, whatever your denominational background, to rediscover these holy seasons.

We designed this site especially for those Christians new to observing Advent and Christmas. We hope it's a resource — a field guide of sorts — to help you, your family, and your church journey through these seasons with Christ-centered expectancy and joy, as Christians have done through the centuries.