top of page

So, this is Christmas

"Christmas" has come to mean many different things, all of which might be vigorously defended. The battle over “Christmas trees” versus “holiday trees” has turned something unifying into something divisive, as if naming something after its originating tradition is somehow insulting to those who don’t subscribe to it. People want their fruit cake and eat it; to choose the bits they like but not be beholden to anyone else's ideas. But if a defence of Christmas is a defence of the “right” to spend large amounts of money on trivia that cost precious resources to make and dispose of, or to gourmandise and indulge, make merry and consume, consume, consume, I want no part of it either. If someone wants to do all those things in the name of someone or something other than Christ, well, that’s their choice. It’s not as if any of those things are actually God-honouring.

Ah, but then we defend the “Real Meaning of Christmas.” Enter Hollywood and warm, fuzzy stories of family reconciliation, spreading joy and cheer, elves and Santa, decorations and lights and crooning music we wouldn’t be caught dead listening to any other time of the year. There’s a lot we could say “Bah, humbug!” to, but not everything. I love the fact that, although Christmas can bring out the worst in people — greed, especially — it can also bring out the best, albeit temporarily. For a short time each year, we do seem to go out of our way to spread Christmas cheer, remember the poor, invite others to our fortress homes, and at least talk about peace and goodwill.

So what is the Real Meaning of Christmas, and why should we care? Why can’t Christmas be whatever we want it to be? A family time, a party time, a holiday time and oh well, if you must, a religious time. Many countries have their own traditions of Christmas, none innately superior to another. Here in North Queensland, we may smirk at the incongruity of reindeer and artificial snow when it’s 35 degrees and Christmas lunch will be a barbeque around the pool. If we are talking about a holiday season and family traditions, go for it. If we want to spread good will to all men and help the poor, fantastic — why limit it to Christmas, though? Getting into the spirit of Christmas won’t draw you nearer to God or earn brownie points with him, and neither will treating Christmas as just another day take you further from him.

Christmas has gone beyond its original intent, such as that was. There’s actually no command or recommendation or even reported practice in the Bible of recognising and celebrating the birth of Jesus in some special way. So it’s a moot point as to how it “should” be done. In fact, the very early Christians were advised not to get too worked up about feasts and holidays, one way or the other. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome (chapter 14), said they should not judge each other over issues of eating, drinking and observing special days. You can honour God by observing a special day, but you don’t dishonour him if you don’t observe it. We don’t live for ourselves, he reminded them; we live for God and we honour him in all we do, all year round.

Christmas, as it is commonly practiced, may have little to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, and that’s people’s individual choice. It’s before God that we stand or fall for the way we live our lives. When defending the right to celebrate Christmas, though, let’s be clear. If it’s to be a religious battle, about the equal right of all people to celebrate their faith, whatever it may be, let’s make sure we are defending the right things. The defence of Christmas trees and shopping centre decorations is a social argument, not a matter of faith. Let those who take the Christian sense of Christmas seriously understand what should be defended and what is just tinsel and trimmings. Likewise, let those who (quite reasonably) dislike the consumerism and social pressures and indulgences of the Silly Season not mistake all that for the significance of the first Christmas (on whatever day that happened to be).

So, what should Christians actually celebrate in remembering the birth of Jesus over 2000 years ago? Is it that a great religious teacher came to teach us to love each other and show good will to all, to preach peace among all on this war-torn earth? Is it an example of humility that a King was born in an animal stable? (Ironic that we celebrate it with some many rich trappings, isn’t it?) Is it about the coming together of kings and shepherds, putting aside their differences? Or perhaps a celebration of the miracle of birth, epitomised in a quaint children’s story?

Well, partly, yes. Those are all take away messages, helpful spin-offs if you like (even if a lot of the quaint and most memorable aspects are not actually in the biblical record). But they are not the REAL message, the central message, far from it. There are two nativity accounts in the Bible, one in Matthew and one in Luke, each with a different emphasis and including details that suit each gospel’s message. Matthew, writing for Jewish readers, emphasises fulfilment of ancient Jewish (Old Testament) prophecies concerning the descendant of King David who would reign forever. Matthew’s gospel is a Kingdom gospel that stresses Jesus’ divine authority, and his account includes the wise men (magi) who visited the child Jesus some time after the stable birth. Luke’s gospel emphasises Jesus’ compassion, his ministry to the poor and outcasts and his elevation of women. Hence Luke’s account includes the shepherds (widely regraded as riff-raff in the day) as first witnesses of the advent of the Saviour, Christ the Lord. Despite these different but compatible emphases, the central message is the same.

Humanity was in a desperate strait. Sin had fuelled corruption, inequality, violence and a disregard for God. Wars, tumult, suffering were the everyday lot of most people. The Jews, God’s chosen people had been promised a deliverer through the ancient prophecies. Unfortunately, most of the Jews of the day thought this deliverer would be political, would cast off the Roman yoke and restore the greatness of the old Davidic kingdom. But the deliverer came to save not just Jews, but all people, from a far greater enslavement. The enslavement to sin underlies everything that was and is wrong with the world. It feeds our greed and selfishness, our inhumanity and violence. Jesus came to do away with the root cause of that. In due course he will deal with all of the effects and bring full justice to the earth, but his first job was the essential prelude, the inauguration of a new age with a promised eternal culmination.

Sinful humanity had rejected God and turned from his ways. That sin couldn’t just be swept under the carpet and overlooked. We recoil at the injustice of a rapist or murderer getting off because of clever legal tactics. God will not overlook sin or pull some clever trick to get us off. No, there must be justice. But justice alone would mean the end of humanity, and despite all our rebellious evil, God loves us too much for that. He’s also merciful, and he chose to punish sin by taking it on himself. In the person of his Son he became flesh. He became fully human, whilst retaining his divinity but leaving the glory and riches of it behind. He took on the form of a servant. Being born in a stable and being laid in a feed trough was not the depth of his humbling, far from it. He stepped into our very shoes, lived amongst us and took our sins to the cross, the most disgraceful death imaginable. He destroyed the power of sin in the very flesh in which it usually reigned. God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. By putting our faith in Jesus Christ, who the Bible says is God with us (“Immanuel”) we share in his defeat of sin and we share in his everlasting life. We become reconciled to God; “God and sinners reconciled.”

That is the meaning of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” It means much more than, “stop fighting and be nice to each other.” It means we have peace with God through Jesus Christ; our enmity with him is over. It means God shows mercy and goodwill toward his children, who have been reconciled to him through Christ. Only by being reconciled to God can we be reshaped to be reconciled to each other. That is the Gospel, that is what Jesus came to do, and that is cause for joy to the world.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page