As a pastor, I get asked a lot of questions that I cannot directly answer. Some questions have no known answer. I suppose other questions have answers that are beyond our comprehension.
Across the years I have been asked a few questions repetitively, such as “where did God come from?”, “where do our pets go when they die?”, and “when will the ‘end of time’ occur?” I have learned to quickly but kindly respond that there are no dogmatic answers to these inquiries.
However, this year, on at least three occasions I have been asked, “Do they celebrate Christmas in heaven?” This is a new question for me. While this question fits in the same category of “does not have a dogmatic answer,” I have reflected on this question within the framework of my imagination, and realize that my proposed response may be more pastoral than theological.
Whatever heaven is like, I tend to think that the residents do celebrate Christmas. Now, I am aware that there are theological problems with such suppositions. For example, inhabitants of the earth operate on linear time, and are subjected to aging and deterioration. Residents of heaven seem to live in the realm of eternal time, which has no beginning, no end, and no lapse.
The fact that December 25 is our designated day to celebrate, and not the actual date of Jesus’ birth, is also problematic for those who are not willing to make the imaginative leap toward envisioning a Yuletide celebration in heaven. Nonetheless, my hunch is that they likely celebrate Christmas in heaven. Here’s why:
First, I think there is a perpetual atmosphere of celebration in heaven. So why not celebrate Christmas? The gospels tell us that the angels in heaven rejoice when a single “lost sheep is found” (Luke 15:6). Therefore, the inhabitants of heaven must receive a least a few news flashes from earth. And if Christ followers on earth are celebrating Christmas, it seems that to some degree a corresponding celebration would occur in heaven.
Second, heaven is a place of ultimate worship. The Bible indicates that believers from across the ages are singing, “Worthy, worthy is the Lamb!” (Revelation 5:12). When believers around the world gather locally to worship, I envision that we are not alone but are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Especially during Advent and Christmas, when we worship, I can imagine that the great host of witnesses joins us when we sing, “O come let us adore Him, Christ, the King.”
Third, (and I know this sounds a little hokie to some) Christmas would be a great time for a reunion of the original cast of the nativity. Can you imagine Mary, Jesus, wise men, shepherds, angels, other visitors who were not specifically named in the gospel accounts, gathering to recount that historic night? They might even note how different the actual event was from the sanitized “manger scenes” of contemporary lore.
There’s a fourth reason I think they celebrate Christmas in heaven. Although the Son is said to have been present with the Father before the foundation of the world, Jesus was physically born into the world on the first Christmas. I grew up singing, “The Birthday of the King.” So in my prospectus, I can envision Christmas in heaven being the ideal time to gather around a huge cake and celebrate Jesus’ birthday.
And finally, Christmas would be a great time for a reception for new residents in heaven. Maybe that perspective is influenced by my Baptist upbringing…you know, we Baptists will host a fellowship for almost any occasion. But, think about this: A local mortuary in our town, like many around the country, had a candlelight service earlier this week for the families of those who lost loved ones this past year. I would like to think that on the other side of the bridge leading to eternity, the Hospitality Committee in heaven is hosting a party for those who have recently arrived.
Yes, I know it is theologically speculative to suppose that they celebrate Christmas in heaven. However, the Bible does affirm that heaven is a place where all things are made new. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:4.
There are other biblical clues that indicate heaven is a place of social interaction, familiar acquaintance, and festive rejoicing. But most importantly, if heaven is indeed a place where there is no more sadness, then our loved ones who have preceded us in death are not looking over the banister of heaven, overwhelmed by the grief of their departure from earth. Of course, it is not that they don’t miss us. It is more like they now have a new perspective on the eternal reality that “is,” while we live more with the longing for “what shall be.”
So this year, when you see that empty chair at the table, or miss that familiar voice around the Christmas tree, it’s okay to grieve and think fondly of the one who is missing. Just don’t stop there. Imagine the chair they now occupy and the landscape where their voice is now heard. Go ahead and dream of what it must be like to celebrate your first Christmas in heaven.
And to better prepare for that occasion, practice, by celebrating Christmas right where you are.
(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)