Pastoral Perspectives

A Sense of Wonder

Growing up, the annual Christmas light-up along Orchard Road always filled me with wonder. Ever since I could remember, my parents would bring me to Orchard Road every year to catch the elaborate décor and lights adorning the shopping malls and the streets. It was a delight simply to stroll down an Orchard Road lit up by all the fancy lights and soak in the festive atmosphere. I’m not sure how it fascinated me so much as a child, but Christmas never seemed like Christmas to me without the Orchard Road Christmas light-up. Coming from a family of modest means, I didn’t have the luxury to fly to faraway places that exuded Christmassy vibes—with the snow and all—so, walking around a brightly lit Orchard Road was how we made Christmas feel like Christmas in tropical Singapore.

However, the Christmas light-up slowly lost its charm for me as I got older. What used to fill me with joy and wonder gradually began to feel rather mundane. I soon saw it as just another event in the year organized for the sake of drawing the shopping crowd. Again, I’m not sure how that happened. Perhaps it was just part of growing up: I became less interested in the lights and more interested in hanging out with friends and partying.

Some years later, I became a Christian and Christmas took on a new significance for me. As I learnt more about my newfound faith, I started to understand Christmas as the occasion for remembering our Lord Jesus Christ’s nativity, the event of the Word of God taking up human nature to dwell alongside a broken and sinful humanity. The reason for the season is the celebration of God’s infinite love in the sending of his Son “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed). Once again, I was filled with a child-like wonder for Christmas, only what charmed me this time wasn’t fancy lighting and décor but the glorious mystery of the Incarnation.

Then, life happened. Oftentimes, when we listen to sermons on St Luke’s nativity story, we hear the preacher asking, “Have you made room for Jesus in your hearts this Christmas?” Longtime Christians may find this question rather trite and hackneyed, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as being pertinent to only non-Christians. It’s a question that demands some quiet introspection, no matter how many times we’ve heard it being asked before. You see, when life got busier as I took on more work responsibilities, got married, and started a family, Christmas began to lose its charm for me. It became just another period of time in the year. In fact, the stressful flurry of activities of around Christmas led me to even dread and resent it—so many things to do and so little time! So, no, my heart was full of tumult during Christmas and there was no room in it for baby Jesus to lay his head. Whatever sense of wonder I had for Christmas subsequently got consumed by the demands of life.

I’m always thankful that our church keeps liturgical time. Some of us may be bemused at the keeping of the different liturgical feast days and seasons. The church catholic does so because it recognizes that we are human, all too human. We are finite and forgetful, and the liturgical calendar guides us in remembering aspects of our faith which we may have neglected because of our busyness. In the Advent leading up to Christmas, I felt I needed to reread and meditate on St Luke’s nativity story to prepare myself for Christmas. So, I did. As I got to the part about the shepherds, I chuckled at the thought of the angelic hosts in the air being the original Christmas light-up (so there is some biblical precedence for our Orchard Road light-up!). Yet, what really struck me was the shepherd’s sense of wonder and awe throughout the short pericope. Even after they left the holy family, they continued to glorify and praise God “for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2.20). The shepherds knew only in part and yet they were so awed by what they knew. Today, the church holds a fuller understanding of Jesus thanks to the testimony of Scripture, but do I feel more awed than the shepherds did? Scarcely.

Perhaps I’m not alone in this experience but I do believe it’s important to regain a sense of wonder for Christmas. After all, the season remembers the central mystery of our faith, that an infinitely transcendent Creator became immanent in his finite creation as a creature. For the pagan philosophers in the ancient world, this was a sort of categorical error: the idea that “the Word became flesh” (John 1.14) is absurd because God cannot become what is not God. As Sergius Bulgakov writes in his Lamb of God, “Nondivine, human thought could not have been brazen enough to think and pronounce these words. It could not have found the grounds to think and say them. Only the word of God, moved by the Holy Spirit, who penetrates the ‘deep things of God’ (1 Cor. 2:10), could from God tell about God that He became His own creature.”

Christmas celebrates the mystery that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phi. 2.6-7). The Word of God divested himself of his eternal, infinite glory and came to be among humanity, born as a helpless baby and having to suffer the same troubles of human life as the rest of us, and eventually be executed as a criminal. This is a condescension and humiliation of the highest degree, and it should fill us with astonishment and awe every time we contemplate it. This divine act should also fill us with reassurance, because if God would do this for us wretched creatures, then his love for us must be genuine and true, and nothing in this world can separate us from him. Meditating on such divine love should drive us to child-like wonder, just as the shepherds had two millennia ago.