The approach of Christmas brings back a rush of memories from various stages of life that make me pause in my thoughts and almost feel the warmth of cherished times with those I love. For some reason, I usually think first of one Christmas when we were very poor, but my parents went beyond my wildest expectations to buy me an entire set of G.I. Joe toys and accessories. I also think of the first Christmas I spent with my wife and the first Christmas that we hosted the extended family at our own house. I remember so clearly the joy of watching my children anticipate Christmas, open presents, and play in the midst of a pile of boxes and wrapping paper.

However, sometimes, Christmas memories are difficult. One Christmas was spent partially in the hospital due to an unexpected surgery. Other Christmases have been the first ones spent without a loved one who had passed away. As I look forward to the coming Christmas season, feelings of sadness and even foreboding come upon me since my father has been very sick and will be unable to be home with my mother for the first time in over 50 years. I know things will be different and dread the pain this will cause my mother.

Whether the season brings excitement or sadness in our personal lives, I find myself often forgetting the words of the angel to Joseph and the powerful declaration of “Immanuel,” God is with us. The angel’s declaration is taken from Isaiah who lived in a time of spiritual impoverishment among God’s people and prophesied about coming times of defeat and exile. The declaration is to Joseph, a poor carpenter, who lived in a time of Roman rule and who is experiencing the pain and doubt of finding his intended wife to be pregnant with a child that was not his own. In contrast to their dark times, Isaiah and Joseph are assured that God is with them. Despite his messages of doom, Isaiah makes some of the most memorable predictions of the Messiah’s birth (7:14; 9:6-7), crucifixion (52:13-52:12), and second coming to set up an eternal kingdom (65-66)! Despite Joseph’s humble life in a troubled time, he was Jesus’ earthly father, experiencing the fulfillment of so much Scripture as he shared intimate times of life and fellowship with God incarnate in the baby and young boy Jesus!

For some reason it is so easy to see how God was with Old Testament saints like Isaiah and how Jesus was physically present with Joseph, Mary, and the disciples, but sometimes so difficult to understand how He is with us today. How do we incorporate the concept of Immanuel into our Christmas thinking? How do we prepare ourselves to fully experience God’s presence in the season in which we should most naturally celebrate the advent of Jesus into this world?

I find three simple practices to be extremely helpful in preparing oneself to experience God’s presence more deeply during the Christmas season. First, establish or step into Christian rituals before Christmas. Traditional ways of preparing for Christmas such as advent calendars and regular Scripture readings have been used for centuries and allow us to participate with believers worldwide as we remember Christ’s birth. Add to these your own traditions that go beyond basic gift-giving and focus on the reason for giving. Even small touches like adding a Christmas game that promotes fellowship and thankfulness allow us to better experience God’s presence.

Second, set aside times each day to look to Christ’s second coming. I have often neglected this in the Christmas season, but His first coming is always reminding us that He’s coming again. This simple exercise will encourage you with hope, even if your Christmas situation this year may be less than you’d hoped. It will also spur you to think about those around you who do not know Christ and encourage you to make connections between Christmas and the soon coming return of the Savior.

Finally, live your life in a way that reflects the truth that Immanuel, God with us, is an ongoing reality if we have the Holy Spirit living within us today. God is always with us as the Holy Spirit warms our hearts with previous Christmas memories or comforts our hearts during Christmases that may be particularly difficult. The Holy Spirit proves to be “God with us” as our hearts take joy in Christmas carols and advent readings. The Holy Spirit is “God with us” as we take care and thought into buying and receiving presents for those we love and for those we don’t know. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is “God with us” in exactly the same way that He was with Jesus as He grew from an infant to adulthood – empowering, leading, teaching, comforting, and confirming the will of the Father each moment of our existence!

May God be with each of you and your families this Christmas season as you prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth so long ago! May He also be with you as you anticipate His next advent on earth! We agree with the Spirit, “Come Lord Jesus! May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen.” (Rev. 22:20-21)