Christmas has a lot of different meanings to people in our increasingly multicultural society. For some, the fact that our culture still recognizes and celebrates Christmas is offensive, either because they celebrate another religious or cultural occasion this time of year or because they see Christmas as an overly religious observance in any event. For others, the whole concept of “Christmas” is awash in mystery. The Christmas season brings with it a grab-bag of traditions, from religious elements (baby Jesus, manger scenes, angels) to secular ones (snowmen, candy canes, and the ubiquitous man in red and white). We’re bombarded with messages: “Buy One, Get One Free!” “It’s the MOST WONDERFUL time of the year!” After all is said and done, many are left feeling deflated and bewildered — this is the most wonderful time of the year? The expectation of Christmas “Joy” can be downright oppressive, especially for those trying to find meaning in Santa’s elves.
Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy a lot of the cultural Christmas traditions (never got into It’s a Wonderful Life, though). But I don’t have any illusions that finding the perfect tree, buying the right presents, or singing the right songs will bring any lasting satisfaction.
So what’s Christmas all about for me? The incarnation. I’m not talking about a sterile manger scene with a European baby Jesus. I’m talking about the God who spoke an incomprehensibly vast universe into existence, holds every particle of matter together by his power, and gives life and breath to every human on the planet. And I’m talking about that God suddenly breaking into his creation by taking on human nature and actually becoming one of us. He arrived on the scene not in a dazzling display to thunderous applause, but by traveling through the birth canal of a peasant girl in a dingy, dirty animal stall in a no-name town. If that doesn’t stagger your mind, you might want to ponder it some more.
This year, I’ve been struck by an additional element of the incarnation — its permanency. I realized that when I talk about Jesus being the infinite God-man (fully God and fully man), I tend to think of his humanity as bound by the time he spent on the earth in the 30-odd years before he went to the cross, as if he returned to “God” status when he ascended after his resurrection. But the Bible talks about Jesus’ incarnation as a very permanent thing. The eternal God eternally joined with his creation such that Jesus can now be called our “brother” (Heb. 2:17). He became a man so that he could save men in a way that would demonstrate both his just wrath against sin and his mercy for sinners, so he could be both the just and the one who justifies the ungodly. Rom. 3:26, 4:5. The permanency of the incarnation wipes out any lingering misconceptions I may harbor about whether what Jesus did was all that hard for him (after all, he is God). There was nothing illusory, fleeting, or light about the incarnation. The scars Jesus still bears testify to the eternal and costly nature of his humanity.
So, while I enjoy what we know as the Christmas season, with all of its secular and religious traditions and trappings, this year I’m seeing Christmas in a little different light. It’s become primarily an occasion to remember (and be thankful for) the fact that Jesus became my brother in every way — even arriving through the indignity of birth as a naked, needful baby — so that he could show the glory of his grace by saving a sinner like me. All of the other stuff is simply a series of great reminders.
Speaking of which, pass the egg nog latte!