During the recent Advent season we followers of Jesus were reminded once again of the epicenter of our faith: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory” (John 1:14). This astounding message changes everything, and that includes prayer. But let’s be honest—the busy-ness of the new year tends to wipe away the afterglow of our Advent experience. I suggest this year we resist our tendency to forget Advent by pondering how the story of Christ’s birth impacts how we pray. Prayer can never be the same after God’s ultimate revelation, the incarnation of the Son of God. We need to pray with our minds set on Christmas.
We learn much about prayer when we look at the way that first Christmas impacted God’s people. Four lessons stand out. “Praying Christmas” means responding to Christ’s Advent in prayers that are submissive, worshipful, thankful, and confident. Read on to see how the Christmas story impacts the way we pray.
Praying Christmas is praying submissively, because God is sovereign.
The blessed virgin Mary is a model of many Christian virtues, but none of them are more important than submission to the will of God. It’s hard to imagine a more unsettling message from the Lord than the one Mary received through the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38). Her life would be turned upside down because she would give birth to the King of Israel. When Mary heard this astounding announcement, she asked one simple question—she wanted to know how this could happen to a virgin (Luke 1:34). When Gabriel explained the miraculous role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ conception, Mary replied with these amazing words: I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true (Luke 1:38 NLT). Mary’s immediate submission to Gabriel’s life-altering message models the sort of submission that we all need when we come before God in prayer. As Jesus himself later prayed in Gethsemane, I want your will to be done, not mine (Matt 26:39). Our most basic posture in prayer is humble submission, and the story of Mary in Luke beautifully portrays this virtue.
Praying Christmas is praying worshipfully, because God is awesome.
The mysterious Magi from the east figure prominently in Matthew’s Christmas story (Matt 2:1, 7, 16; cf. Dan 1:20; 2:2, 10, 27; 4:7; 5:7, 11, 15; Acts 13:6, 8). As the story in the John Henry Hopkins Jr’s 1857 hymn goes, they were three kings, but the Bible does not describe them in this way. Most likely they were Zoroastrian priests who made it their business to study the stars. Somehow their discovery of an unusual star brought them to Jerusalem to worship the one born king of the Jews (Matt 2:1, 11). Frankly, we have no idea how all this happened. Matthew may be hinting that the Magi were motivated by Old Testament passages like Numbers 24:17, Psalm 72:10-11, and Isaiah 60:6. But how would they know of the Old Testament? Some suggest that Daniel taught their ancestors, but there is no way to confirm this. The better part of wisdom is to leave it all as a mystery that instructs us about our own faith. God is awesome, and his gracious work in people’s lives is amazing. God’s mysterious work in the lives of the pagan Magi led them to worship Jesus. His amazing grace in our lives should lead us to do the same, especially as we pray in the coming year.
Praying Christmas is praying thankfully, because God is faithful.
Luke gives his readers a window into the hearts of the Virgin Mary and Zechariah the priest when he portrays their songs of praise, Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79). Faith in God’s promises is prominent in both songs (Luke 1:55, 70). Mary and Zechariah alike root their prayers in God’s mercy (Luke 1:50, 54, 72, 78), which in this context refers to God’s faithful love to his covenant people. Mary and Zechariah were driven to thank God not because they hit some sort of personal jackpot in the divine lotto. Rather, they were both overcome with the realization that God’s ancient promises to Abraham and David were beginning to come true, not just in their lifetimes, but through their lives. The elderly Jews Simeon and Anna had also been eagerly expecting the beginning of God’s messianic deliverance (Luke 2:25-38). Today we should be expecting the completion of that deliverance and praising God that we are a part of the outworking of his promises. We need to view our lives as part of God’s grand story of creation and redemption. Christmas shows us that we can trust God to continue fulfilling his promises. Pondering God’s faithfulness to Israel ought to lead us to thanksgiving, just as it did Mary and Zechariah and Simeon and Anna.
Praying Christmas is praying boldly, because God understands us.
The omniscient God of the Bible knows all things actual and possible—nothing escapes God’s knowledge. But the doctrine of omniscience isn’t what I’m talking about here. As one of the incommunicable attributes of God, omniscience distances the infinite Creator from his finite creatures. Christmas teaches us something quite different, that God became human when the virgin miraculously conceived and gave birth to her firstborn son Jesus. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Luke 2:40-52 shows us that the boy Jesus experienced normal human development, growing physically, intellectually, and spiritually. The book of Hebrews shows how Jesus’ human experience qualified him to be a sympathetic high priest, one who shared in flesh and blood with all its infirmities, tests, and suffering (Heb 2:14-18; 4:14-16). Because of this, we can relate confidently to God because our high priest is sympathetic, merciful and patient with us. Because of Christmas, we pray much more boldly, not to an intellectually superior though distant Being, but to a God who has been where we are and gets us from experience. What an incentive for prayer!
Praying Christmas in 2021
When we ponder Mary’s humble response to Gabriel’s announcement, we are led to greater submission to God’s providence in our own lives. When we contemplate the Magi, we stand all the more in awe of the mysteries of God’s grace. When we note how Mary and Zechariah, not to mention Simeon and Anna, understood Advent as God faithfully fulfilling his promises to Israel, we are led to be all the more thankful ourselves. Perhaps even more importantly, learning how Jesus became truly human motivates us to pray boldly to a sympathetic High Priest, who understands our human predicament. Jesus has been where we are, and he gets all our weaknesses.
Our best prayers are prayers that cohere with the character, plan and promises of God. The Gospel narratives of our Lord’s birth and early days provide much insight into these matters. Thinking through these stories will help us avoid forgetting the blessings that are ours through the Advent of Jesus, and prevent Christmas from quickly fading into the background of our busy lives. We can make Christmas last by integrating Christmas-Story truth into our prayers. This year let’s pray submissively, worshipfully, thankfully, and boldly, because Christmas shows us just how sovereign, awesome, faithful, and understanding God is.
Let’s pray Christmas in 2021!