A lot of people complain that Christmas is really a pagan holiday that’s been refitted for Christianity but, for me, that’s a feature not a bug.
For me, the birth of Christ — the incarnation of God’s Logos — the moment when the God we can’t see became visible and the God we can’t understand made Himself known — is like a spiritual atom bomb going off in history. After the blast, there’s all sorts of immediate effects: healing, miracles, the resurrection, crazy behavior like believers sitting on poles and handling snakes and speaking in tongues.
But over time, the radiation — or in this case, the radiance — spreads out and covers everything, permeates everything, transforms everything into a vehicle for itself.
History becomes new. We suddenly understand it as the events leading up to the arrival of the Christ child and the years of Our Lord leading away to the second coming.
Religion is changed. What was once an endless series of appeals and sacrifices by man to God becomes instead a vehicle of the Good News about the one sacrifice God made for man. It’s still religion. It’s still full of rules and doctrines and theories. But now those rules and doctrines and theories carry and spread the Good News and are only valid insofar as they contain the Good News.
And yes, holidays are transformed. A brute celebration of a physical event like the winter solstice becomes instead a joyous commemoration of the dawning of the Light of the World.
But the birth of Christ, like the birth of any man, is only the beginning.
A friend of mine recently made a wonderful observation about the Nicene Creed, the statement of basic Christian beliefs. He pointed out that Christ’s life is missing. One section of the creed declares that Christians believe Jesus “came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made man. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate…”
Everything Jesus did and said vanishes between the period of one sentence and the start of another. My friend said it was as if they offered us the bread of a sandwich, but not the meat.
I sometimes fear too many of us believe, so to speak, in the bread of life, but not the life itself. We’re very swift to argue with one another over doctrine, but a little slow to go back and puzzle over what Jesus was actually trying to tell us. I don’t mean taking phrases out of context as a way to attack people we disagree with. I mean listening with full attention as the Logos of God tries to teach us how to align ourselves with Him.
Jesus said stuff. He told us to do stuff. He said, “Judge not lest you be judged.” He said, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” I don’t think He was speaking in some kind of clever code when He said those things. I think He meant what He said exactly.
He told us to love God and love our neighbor — and to love our enemies, too, so that we’ll be children of our Father in heaven who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good alike. God loves His human creation, in other words, and He wants us to act like His children and love it too.
I don’t think Jesus said these things so we would feel bad when we inevitably failed to do them. I don’t think he said them so we could dissect and twist them and make them mean something else. And I definitely don’t think he said them so we can throw them in one another’s faces.
I think he said them because he wanted to teach us joy. He wanted to tell us that when you attune your heart to the immensity of God’s love, you become joyful, and more joyful every day. I don’t mean happy. Happiness comes and goes. I mean abundantly alive, vitally present, crazily grateful to be even in this vale of tears.
At Christmas, what was once a celebration of the light of the sun and the abundant life it gives the Earth, becomes instead a commemoration of the Light of the World and the abundant life He offered all of us. Not just in His birth, because His birth was only the beginning. Not just in His death, though His death was not the end. His life, His works, His words — these are the contents of the Incarnation. These are the gifts of Christmas.
Heaven and Earth will pass away, but those words will never pass away. The gift of joy is for us, and no one can take it from us. So let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Rejoice. Rejoice evermore.
And have a merry Christmas.