Why Christmas?

Someone recently asked me why we make such a big deal out of Christmas. Surely Easter is actually the more important holiday. And we don’t even know for sure that Jesus was born on December 25th.

It’s true that we don’t know the day of Jesus’ birth. The date we have was chosen partly for theological significance (the date of his conception being given as March 25/10 Nisan by one of the church fathers), partly to replace pre-existing Roman (pagan) celebrations. The earliest documented Christmas celebration is 354 AD in Rome.

But even if we knew the actual date, is this something we should celebrate? And with such lavish and commercialized gift giving?

Yes, I say. And in fact, we ought to give it even more attention than we currently do.

Christmas actually starts with Advent in the church calendar.

Advent is a time of waiting, and waiting is a discipline. In American culture, we generally don’t like waiting, and we do what we can to avoid it. But God put our lives into seasons on purpose – we need times of waiting! This is the busiest time of the year, but it should be the most still, when we wait for the birth of our savior.

During Advent, we recognize how badly we need that savior. We identify with Israel, waiting for Messiah to come and free them from their oppressors. We acknowledge that our world is full of sin and darkness, because Jesus came as a light to the darkness, and to sinners, not to the righteous. This is why we sing “O come, O come Immanuel.”

Israel was longing for a savior, but they didn’t get what they expected: A king with the power of David, who would sit on David’s throne, and throw off the Roman oppressors. Instead, they got a baby conceived out of wedlock, born to a lowly peasant girl. Mary and Joseph were apparently shunned by his family, because none of their relatives in Bethlehem took them in. So his first cradle was a dirty feeding trough. Instead of royal attendants, a handful of shepherds celebrated his birth. This momentous occasion almost went by unnoticed. The only other people who acknowledged his status were foreign star gazers. The man who was supposed to be the leader of Israel went on a killing spree to stop this threat to his throne. Before the savior was two, he had to flee his homeland as a refugee, and grow up as an immigrant. But Mary delighted in this surprising move from God in her song:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:45-55)

God sent his Messiah to the poor and lowly rather than the rich and powerful. But the most shocking part of all is that he was not just a man whom God appointed as Messiah. He was God himself. The angel said to Mary, call him Immanuel, for he is God with us. God, the Creator of the Universe, who has no beginning and no end, who holds time in his hands and cannot be contained by infinity – that same God became as small as an embryo. He who is limitless limited himself to a woman’s womb. The one who is Spirit took on flesh. He who is unchanging changed his very being, and subjected himself to the awkward growth of a human body. The all-powerful God made himself dependent on a teenage girl to survive.

The significance of the Incarnation cannot be overstated. God changed permanently. When Jesus ascended, he didn’t just “go back to being God.” The Son who had been perfectly united with the Father and the Spirit willingly went through a separation. The timeless God now has a “before” and “after.”

In the incarnation, Jesus identified with us in every way. He experienced life as we know it, he took on our weaknesses and is intimately acquainted with our struggles. He was tempted and did not sin, and so through him we can also defeat sin. He died and did not succumb to the grave, and so though him, we can also defeat the grave. Without the incarnation, there is no resurrection. And if there is no resurrection, says Paul, we have no hope.

That’s the joy of Christmas; that’s what we are celebrating. Joy to the world, JESUS CAME FOR US. We have a thrill of hope, let the weary world rejoice! Christ, Jesus, is the LORD – Yahweh the God of Israel. They are one and the same! That lowly carpenter’s son, he is God! He has come with good news: peace on earth!

But.

But we know, don’t we, that there is a dark side of Christmas. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness rejected him. We tell ourselves that Christmas is a happy time of year, even though in reality it’s the worst time of year for many people. If we pause between frantic shopping and holiday parties, if we look at the world around us, we see the brokenness, the violence, the darkness. Even the original Christmas story lacks the joy we read back into it. We forget that an evil man killed who knows how many little boys on account of Jesus.

And do we forget the other Christmas story, the one that was going on behind the scenes?

“A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”

“Peace on earth” we sing – but we know there is no peace on earth. There is a dragon waging war among us. We have no silent night. But it is precisely in this way that Jesus came to us the first time. That’s why the Christmas story matters: to show us that God sees our hurt and our pain, and he puts on flesh to rescue us from death.

So during Christmas we pray, we cry out to God, “Come Lord Jesus!” We are still longing for a savior. We are waiting for him to come again and put the world right. And when he comes, it will not be unknown and unseen. We will all sing “O Come Let us Adore Him.” Unlike the first “silent night,” when he returns:

at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Let me introduce you to my friend Jesus

My first post is a participation in Addie Zierman’s Synchroblog, “When We Were on Fire.” Her memoir of the same title is available as of today.

Click on the image to read more “When We Were On Fire” stories at AddieZierman.com

I came to it a bit late, but that didn’t stop me.

I “got saved” in 1999, right before DC Talk went on hiatus. I never saw them in concert, but that didn’t stop me from wearing a “Jesus Freak” t-shirt or from joining online fan communities.

I was only 9 when I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published, but by the time my peers began dating I knew that the Christian response was to wait.

Even though I was young, I adopted the Christian culture from the 90s with all the fierceness of a new faith. And I was on fire.

My parents didn’t go to church. Their marriage was crumbling and tearing our family apart. Maybe that’s why I threw myself wholeheartedly into this new community of faith. Without any guidance (that I can remember), I stopped listening to my favorite pop station because a DJ said “Oh my God.” From then on, I listened exclusively to Christian music. I started picking up t-shirts from conferences and mission trips, and before long, my entire wardrobe consisted of “evangelistic” shirts. I especially loved the kind that imitated a logo of some product, changed just enough to avoid copyright infringement, like this one.

I found ways to bring Jesus up in just about any conversation (I was Jesus Juking before it was cool). I was the sixth-grade evangelist who took the pastor literally when he said “You need to introduce your friends to Jesus.” As in, I went up to a classmate and said, “I want you to meet my friend, Jesus.” He looked at me like I was crazy and then avoided me the rest of the school year. High school wasn’t much better. I became really concerned about the “eternal destiny” of my friends.  I “listened” to their objections to Christianity and then dutifully went looking for The Answers. I read through books like A Case For Christ and (as much as I could understand) Darwin’s Black Box, so I had the Right response to any argument. But most of all, I prayed. For hours. I had lists of people that God had “burdened” me with, and I poured out my tender little heart on their behalf.

And the thing is…it worked. My passion, my zeal, my sheer stubbornness finally convinced some of my friends to give this whole Jesus thing a try. They went with me to CIY. Two friends were baptized. One “rededicated” her life. At that same conference, I dedicated myself to “vocational ministry.” My heart was soaring. I had never been so on fire, and now my friends were too.

For a while. After a couple of months, the fire died out. They started making excuses for not coming to church. They had deeper questions that weren’t settled by my insistence that they just read the Bible and pray more. They weren’t willing to give up their music or their boyfriends or the other things in their lives that were incompatible with Christian Culture. One by one, they distanced themselves from God, and from me. Suddenly I was alone, and with a deep sense of failure.

The problem with being on fire is that you can get burned.

Hurt and confused, I began to wonder if I had seriously missed the point, and this was utterly terrifying. I literally had no identity outside of Christianity, and an evangelistic Christianity at that. If I was wrong about this, I was wrong about everything. Internally, I was questioning and losing my motivation, but on the outside I was fighting to go through the motions of church, desperately hoping no one would realize that I was no longer on fire.

Over time, I recovered. Slowly, I discovered that real Jesus-following wasn’t performance based. God’s love for me doesn’t depend on how many people I save – as if I was the one who could save them anyway. I found out that the easier your answers are, the shallower your faith is. Trust is in the messy places. I am still trying to understand prayer that treats God neither as Santa Claus nor insurance, but as a father.

I haven’t felt on fire in a long time, and in some ways, I miss it. I miss the simple, brave, confident faith I used to have. But I want something better now. I want a faith that says “yes,” with full awareness of what it will cost. A love that knows what hurt is like and loves anyway. A passion that isn’t a wildfire, but a gentle flame offering light and warmth. A fire that won’t burn out.