The Meaning of Christmas
What is the meaning of Christmas? That is the sort of rhetorical question which a preacher is likely to ask at this time of year. Or perhaps it might be posed more sharply, or even bitterly: What is the true meaning of Christmas? The implication of asking the question that way is of course that the true meaning of Christmas has been or is being obscured by something else. And it is not hard to see why a frustrated preacher might feel it necessary to ask such a question, and ask it in that way.
For one thing if you didn’t know it would be easy to assume that the meaning of Christmas was any number of things. The preacher’s frustration may grow out of how much of the messaging around the subject and the moment of Christmas seems determined to direct our attention away from what preachers might like to make us think about. Most often at this point preachers complain about the commercialisation of Christmas. The meaning of Christmas, if you didn’t know, would appear to be a massive celebration of spending. Much of that messaging would seem to imply that for Christmas to be Christmas a great deal of money must be spent. Money spent on gifts. Money spent of food and drink. Money spent of decorations. Money spent on holidays, afterwards, to have something to look forward to when it’s all over. If you didn’t know you might think Christmas was a massive sacrificial offering to be made to Mammon and to the gods of consumer capitalism. In the face of such Christmas messaging a preacher might be tempted to say: “Bah, humbug!”
Of course materialism isn’t the only message which is being promoted for Christmas. One might think the message of Christmas is noting more than nostalgia and sentimentality. One might ask the question, “What is the meaning of Christmas?” not with a sense of irritation but with a sense of regret. Looking back one might wonder what happened to the Christmases of the past, which some how felt different or better. Perhaps this Christmas this would be the strongest temptation of all.
Given all that has conspired to make us miserable this year, and all they ways nothing is normal, our efforts might be directed to recapturing that sense of joy and wonder that seems to be have been lost, buried under whatever it is that Christmas has become now. Maybe we might recognise that part of what has been lost is our own childlike innocence. That even before this year happened nothing is as wonderful as it once was. Nothing is a sweet as it once was before living in a world that includes pandemics, injustice and naked greed, made us hard-boiled and cynical. We might look to children to help us recover what has been “lost”, use their excitement and happiness to try and recover our own. We might tell ourselves with a tear that is mixture of joy and sadness that “Christmas is for the children.”
Of course preachers being preachers, another temptation that is hard to resist is the temptation to moralise. We might tell ourselves, alongside Charles Dickens who gave us Ebenezer Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!” that the message of Christmas is to make us better, perhaps kinder. Every year charities and “causes” surf their messages of generosity and unselfishness on the larger tide of self-indulgence and acquisitiveness that goes with the season. Every year their a charity singles and charity campaigns designed to to remind us that there are people around us and throughout the world who are not having as nearly a good time as we are. The slightly unpleasant truth about such campaigns and about preacher’s moralising at Christmas is that the best it can really hope to do is replace joy with guilt. And guilt is seldom a helpful emotion.
In the face of all this the puritanical streak in many preachers might tempt them to abandon Christmas altogether. A preacher might say that what Christmas has become is irredeemable, whatever the message of Christmas was, it cannot now be recovered. We don’t have the power and resources to compete with those who want to sell us stuff or even those who want us to help others, so perhaps we shouldn’t try. After all, we might tell ourselves, isn’t Christmas a relatively late addition to Christianity? Isn’t Christmas an attempt by the Church to colonise a pre-existing pagan festival? It can hardly be a surprise then that the pagan messaging of the older mid-winter festival seeps through a Christian attempt to bury it under something else. Besides which isn’t it entirely possible to believe what Christians believe, and live in the way Christians are supposed to live, without reference to Christmas. After all isn’t it the small minority of the authors of the New Testament, Matthew and Luke who find it necessary to recount the Christmas story. Paul, a preacher might reassure us, has no mention of Christmas. And despite how we arrange the books of the New Testament, Paul is the earliest Christian writer whose works have come down to us. And Paul by himself is responsible for fully 28% of the New Testament and his biography is half of one of the other books, Acts. Can’t we be like Paul, and save ourselves the aggravation and do without Christmas altogether?
Preachers are predictable creatures. Everyone just knows that the answer to thatrhetorical question is “no”! We can’t do without Christmas. What is more, despite what we might think, it is Paul himself who can tell us what the meaning of Christmas is. Paul in just two verses summarises the message of Christmas:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as children as children.
Despite the fact that Paul doesn’t recount the Christmas narrative, the whole story is implicit in those two verses. And what is more this story is not, as some might think, a late addition. This is Paul writing to his friends in Galatia, and there is good reason to believe that this is in fact the oldest book of the New Testament, the first to find its current written form.
In a single sentence Paul tells the whole story and draws our attention to the meaning of Christmas:
When the fullness of time had come. . .
There is a trajectory, an arc of history, in what God is doing. Much of that history is told in what we call the Old Testament. The image I like is that of a bow being drawn back, pulled back to its greatest tension, and held for a moment, until the string is released and the arrow allowed to fly. What we call the New Testament is the climax of that older story. It is the flight of that arrow. In the build up to Christmas we remind ourselves of the preparations God makes for Christmas to happen. The final step in that preparation is John the Baptist. Mark doesn’t tell the Christmas Story but John is very prominent in his account of the Good News. And Matthew starts his telling with a genealogy, all the generations that lead up to the moment of Jesus’ birth. Then:
God sent his Son. . .
This of course is the key to the meaning of Christmas. It might be insufferably twee, but it is not wrong to assert that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Christmas is about the way God comes to us. Without Christmas, without Jesus, God’s Son, there is no way for us to find our way to God. Without God’s action we would find ourselves as pagans worshiping not God but power or money. Or we would find ourselves trapped in moralising guilt or sentimentality. For some the idea of virgin birth is hard to swallow, but the story is told that way for it to be clear to us, that Christmas is something that God does. The initiative is with God. God sends us his Son, we are not taking anything to God.
All sons have mothers:
Born of a woman. . .
Jesus is God’s Son. To encounter Jesus is to encounter the fullness of God The likeness between Jesus and God is sufficient for John to say, in the introduction to his Gospel:We have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son full of grace and truth (John 1:14) But whilst Jesus is God, the great mystery of the Gospel is that Jesus is also entirely human. Paul doesn’t name Mary, but she is as present in his account of the meaning of Christmas, as she is prominent in Luke and Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story. My favourite Christmas hymn, one which we don’t sing enough because it’s not really a carol is Charles Wesley’s “Let earth and heaven combine” (Singing the Faith 208). Wesley says: “our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” Perhaps Wesley’s poetry is better, but Paul was already saying from the start.
There is a particularity about the Christmas story. Jesus is born as a human. But there is a particular context to Jesus’ birth:
Born under the law.
One of the things which Christians have often been forgetful even resentful of is the Jewishness of our faith. God is not God in general. God is not a philosophical abstraction. God is God in particular and God has acted in a particular way. That way is sovereign grace. God of God’s own deciding choses to act through Israel. Jesus is in continuity with the history of Israel. One of the Christmas stories we often tell on this Sunday is Jesus’ parents’ fulfilling the law by having him circumcised and presenting at the Temple. Jesus’ birth is the context of faithfulness to Israel. The only true and living God is the God who makes himself known in this context.
For Paul though the law also stands for everything that goes before this “fullness of time” that has now come about in the birth of Jesus. The law for Paul means all the efforts that humans make to either approach God, or conversely to avoid God. God brings this to an end in the Christmas story.
Christmas must also point to Easter.
In order to redeem those who were under the law. . .
Paul knows you can’t have one without the other. Christmas implies Easter. Easter requires Christmas. Christmas by itself is sentimentality or it is self-indulgence. Jesus is born with a mission, and it is a mission which leads him inevitably to the cross.
But for Paul story telling isn’t enough. For him even theology isn’t enough. Paul always moves from theology to life:
So that we might receive adoption as children.
Paul is fascinated by ethics, how we should live. But he knows God wants us to escape the burden and oppression of moralism. And this is the true meaning of Christmas. God knows we cannot help ourselves. There is nothing that we can do that will bring us closer to God. Which is why God acts, which is why Christmas. God comes to us now, as his natural born son, so that we might be adopted as the children of God. The meaning of Christmas, according to Paul and the whole of the New Testament is this: God comes to us, so that we can call God our Father.
The Meaning of Christmas by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0