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 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.