A couple of years ago now, towards the end of the Covid-19 restrictions, a long-time member of a church I once served wrote a very thoughtful letter, lamenting the fact that she was losing the sense of wonder as the Christmas season approached.
“What I want to ask you,” the disciple of Jesus wrote, is this: "I know we Christians always say we need to focus on the real meaning of Christmas, but I am really struggling with what does that really mean? What should I be asking and praying for God to show me how to truly understand and appreciate what He has done by coming to earth as a fully human baby? How can I this year drill down and understand and be truly thankful for that first Christmas?”
Here is my response.
May I begin by blessing you for being so honest. Rest assured that you need not fear “the question does not make you shake your head in disbelief that someone who say they believe in Jesus Christ is asking such a simplistic basic question.” It is the right question to ask every year!
As you can imagine, one could write a whole book in answer to this question.
Here is an all too brief, but hopefully helpful, way to move toward the answer.
A). Returning to the Text
I would begin by reading and re-reading the Biblical passages that tell the Christmas story. I would read them asking, “What does this specific text tell us about what is happening in the events of Christmas?” And I would read the passages in the following order:
Isaiah 9:2-7 (written some 700 years before the first Christmas).
Luke 1:5-23 (announcing of the birth of John the Baptist who would be the ‘forerunner’ of Jesus)
Luke 1:26-55 (announcing of the birth of Jesus, Who He is, and Mary’s response to the miracle)
Matthew 1:18-25 (Joseph wrestling with the rumour of Mary’s pregnancy and God’s response)
Luke 1:56-80 (the birth of John the Baptist and his father’s understanding of what it means)
Luke 2:1-20 (the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve and the angel’s declaration of what it means)
Luke 2:21-40 (Jesus presented for dedication in the Temple eight days after birth, and Simeon’s understanding of what it means)
Matthew 2:1-12 (the surprise visit of Magi from the East, the star,and Who this child is).
B). Spending Time in the Hymns
I would then spend time in some of the classic Christmas carols and hymns, easily found in any Church Hymnal. Especially read (and sing) those composed by Charles Wesley.
C). Ask What the People of God Have Affirmed About Christmas
And then try to list in your mind or on paper what the church has affirmed about the story over the centuries. I will list, all too briefly, a number of affirmations about the meaning of the Biblical texts and hymns. Each affirmation is worth so many more words!
1. The huge, nearly infinite, gap between heaven and earth has been bridged. Not from our side, but from God’s side. Not by us, but by God. God has stepped over the gap, and come to us. Or, to change the image, no human ever need climb a ladder to get to God; God climbed down the ladder to get to us. Jesus is “God stepping over the gap,” “God coming down the ladder.” And in the process bring heaven and earth together never to be separated.
2. All of this because the Living God has become a human being, and doing so without ceasing to be God. Incredible! The Living God, Who has “existed” forever, has become what He was not, and done so forever. (In more careful theological terms, the second Person of the Trinity, the Son, has become human, and done so forever, for when He returns to the Father He does so as the God-Man, human (forever!).
3. Which means that God and humanity have been one. Forever! When in Nazareth, the Holy Spirit caused the virgin Mary to conceive in her womb the incarnate Son of God, God and humanity were fused together, never to be separated. Which means that in that moment of conception, the world was, for all intends, saved. Yes, the world was saved when Jesus died on the cross and then rose from the grave. But the mystery is, salvation was as good as done when the Divine and human become one in the single cell on the wall of Mary’s uterus. Mercy! No turning back! The plan would be fulfilled!
4. God became human, but even more to the point, The New Human. The first human, Adam, failed to be what God designed humans to be; and we all experience that failure. But God would not give up on the reason for creating us. So God became the new Adam, the New Human, humanity as God originally wanted us to be. And in relationship with Jesus the New Human, we begin to be transformed into His likeness, and begin to live the truly human, human life. Jesus “re-captipulates,” as the theologians put it, the human race; God puts the Head back on the race; and that Head is the child born in the manger.
On and on it goes!
5. In Jesus God has come to “save” the human race, and the creation which the old human race has ruined. “Saved” encompasses everything! He comes to save us in every way a human needs to be saved. I get that phrase from the ending of the movie Titanic. The movie, as you know, is built around the relationship between a man named Jack and a woman named Rose. As the ship goes down, Jack acts to save Rose from drowning. In the conclusion of the film, Rose is being interviewed about her experience, and says of Jack, “he saved me in every way a human needs to be saved.”
A bit audacious to say of a mere human being. But not audacious of One Who is not a mere human being. “I have good news of great joy,” says the angel on Christmas Eve; “for to you is born a Savior.” And as we read the rest of the story, we see that This Saviour does in fact save us in every way we need to be saved. Spiritually, emotionally, mentally, relationally, physically. Not all at once, but begins the process in His incarnation, and through His death and resurrection, and through His ascension and pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and then through His coming again, bringing with Him a whole new creation, of which He is “the first fruits.”
6. All of this means that our future is secure. The future of the whole human race is secure. For our future is now tied up with the One Who tied Himself to us
forever. He is our destiny!
On and on it goes!
7. The whole story is fulfilling so many promises made over a long period of time. That is why the Gospel writers so often say, “this was to fulfill what was spoken …” Jesus is, as the Apostle Paul put it, “God’s ‘Yes’ to all the promises” (2 Corinthians 1:20). Which means He is “God’s ‘Yes’” to all the promises made since Jesus came! Again, the future is secure!
8. All the above is why we then can speak at Christmas of light coming into the darkness –for THIS Saviour IS Light itself. We can speak of peace coming into the tension and chaos – for THIS Saviour IS Peace itself. We can speak of life coming into our death –for THIS Saviour IS Life itself. We can speak of love coming into all the division and hate –for THIS Saviour IS Love itself. Indeed, the whole story is driven by love. “God so loved the world, that He sent His Son …” (John 3:16).
Well, I hope some of this fuels the stirring of your heart and mind to enter into “the true meaning of Christmas.”
It just may turn out that Christmas this time around will be the richest Christmas yet because all the tradition and trapping – which I love! – but which just may have gotten in the way – have changed, and all we are left with is Christmas! I liked your closing words: “Have a wonderful blessed Christmas in whatever way that ends up for you.” And back at you.