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A Christmas Reflection by Dr. Mary C. Neal


by Dr. Mary C. Neal, author of To Heaven and Back


It is that time of year when there is a chill in the air and the brilliantly yellow, orange and red colored leaves fall gently to the ground. For me, this annual display of God’s handiwork sounds the warning bell of the coming winter. I am reminded that it is time to stack firewood, dig out warm jackets, clean the skis, and prepare for my favorite holiday: Christmas.

I have always loved Christmas and our family’s festivities are not dampened by the claims that December 25th is an arbitrarily chosen date, that the wise men likely arrived a couple of years later, or that many holiday traditions are based on ancient pagan rituals. We, quite simply, celebrate with all the merriment of an annual birthday party. As our home fills with the smells of cinnamon and pine, we decorate with lights, eat too many sweet treats, warm ourselves by the fire after a day in the snow, select the perfect tree, leave cookies for Santa, and exchange tree ornaments and gifts.

Despite our gaiety, we never lose focus on the one whose birth we celebrate. We erect nativity scenes (absent the baby who is unwrapped on Christmas morning) and talk about Jesus’s coming birth, participate in community events, attend church services, and savor the pervasive sense of hope and good will.

The importance of maintaining this focus was somewhat intangible for me until I drowned when kayaking on a South American river in 1999. As chronicled in my book “To Heaven and Back” (WaterBrook Press, 2012), I was trapped underwater for almost 30 minutes. During that time, I was held, comforted, and reassured by Jesus that everything would be fine. I felt no panic, no fear, and no pain. My spirit separated from my body and I was taken to heaven’s entrance. After gaining insight into the truth of God’s promises and being told about some of the work I had yet to complete on earth, I was returned to my body.

This experience transformed my understanding of Christ and in doing so, transformed my experience of Christmas. On December 25th, I will still joyfully celebrate the birthday party that is Jesus’, but I will also celebrate that through his birth, God gave to us His new covenant of forgiveness and love. I will celebrate that Jesus showed us how to express understanding, humility, kindness, and compassion as well as celebrating his birth’s tangible example of obedience and trust in God’s promises.

Mary was a homeless, pregnant teenager who had a wild idea that she would give birth to the son of God. Joseph was a young man in love with a woman who was pregnant by someone else, and Jesus left his heavenly home for an earthly life that would be filled with challenges and eventual betrayal, suffering, humiliation, and death. Despite their circumstances, each one was obedient to God and trusted His promise of a hopeful future. As a result, the world was forever changed and this is something I not only celebrate, but use as a way to annually refresh my own commitment to obedience.

As you enter this holiday season and read the bumper stickers reminding us that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, I encourage you to consider this story of obedience and trust. Reflect God’s love, and trust God to give you the courage to share with others the story of hope that Jesus brought to all people. Your words will have far reaching effects and may bring joy to those for whom this holiday may otherwise bring loneliness and sorrow.

My drowning death on the river and the experiences that followed transformed my faith into a complete trust in the promises of God, so it is with a joyful and grateful heart that I celebrate each Christmas and strive to become the person God already believes me to be.

I pray that your Christmas celebration is a joyful and wonder-filled recollection of all that Jesus’ birth brought to the world and I pray that it is with a sense of expectation and adventure that you are inspired to obediently seek God’s plan for your life.

 – Mary C. Neal, MD, author of the #1 New York Times best-selling book, To Heaven and Back