Christmas is indescribably special. Even for those who don’t believe in Christ, the festive season is still a time of great joy and celebration. Why? How can we find words for the real meaning of Christmas?
Christmas is a magical time of year. This holy season summons a colourful array of feelings, memories and hopes that are hard to put into words. Our yearly customs of decorating, preparing food, playing familiar tunes and gathering with loved ones is how we give life and shape to the transcendent meaning of the festive season.
Even for many who don’t believe in Christ, Christmas retains its significance. It is our culture’s confession that there is something bigger to life — something that brings us together and injects promise and purpose into our otherwise ordinary world.
I love celebrating Christmas, and I love reflecting on its meaning each year. Here are what I believe are five of the biggest and most beautiful themes that reveal the meaning of Christmas.
In Australia, Christmas is still our most prominent holiday — a time to rest and unwind from the stresses of life and spend precious time with those closest to us.
Look at any culture on God’s green earth, and you will notice that its various holidays, carnivals, feasts and festivals are an indispensable part of life. They are opportunities to blow off steam — but more than this, they are times of spiritual celebration.
This remains true even in our secular age.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has a wonderful way of describing the sacredness of celebrations like Christmas. He argues that secularism has flattened time. Now we experience life as merely a tick-tock of chronological events: one moment following the next in which we stay busy working on our various projects.
Christmas reminds us that there is a higher ordering of time that is not linear or chronological. Taylor writes that these “higher times gather and reorder secular time. They introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events which were far apart could nevertheless be closely linked.”
As a result, Christmas 2021 feels closer to — and has more in common with — the first Christmas in Bethlehem than June of 2021. There is a timelessness to Christmas that reappears each time we celebrate it. God, who lives outside of time, meets us in a profound way when we stop and observe the birth of Christ. It is as though we ourselves are gathered at that manger scene with shepherds and angels.
The medieval church diligently followed a church calendar, marking special days, weeks and seasons throughout the year. Living in the modern world, we (even Christians) have mostly abandoned that calendar. Christmas is our one major exception. It is when our culture’s unshakeable hunger for God is most obvious — and He quietly meets us in our celebration of the Christ-child.
The birth of Jesus is a big deal in the Bible. It is announced by choirs of angels and is attended by philosopher-kings who cross deserts bearing gifts. It even leads to a genocide, in which King Herod seeks to eliminate any potential threat to his throne!
Why is Jesus’ birth so important? It is because He was no ordinary baby. The coming of Christ was prophesied centuries in advance. No mere human, Jesus is Immanuel: God with us. As the prophet Isaiah foresaw:
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Until the coming of Jesus, the role of God or the gods was to wield power from the heavens and demand that humanity live up to certain rules and rituals.
At the birth of Christ, we see the opposite. God stepped down into His creation. In the incarnation, God took on flesh and made Himself vulnerable to all the constraints and pressures of human existence.
Before Jesus, it made no sense to speak of the “humility of God”. But when our star-breathing Creator was born to a teenage virgin, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in an animal’s feeding trough, our picture of God was transformed forever. As we read in Philippians 2:6-7,
Though he [Jesus] was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.
Jesus came not just to transform our idea of who God is — He came to bring us salvation. When Mary fell pregnant, Joseph knew the whole community would assume he was the father and had gotten Mary pregnant out of wedlock. He decided to quietly end their engagement, until an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said:
Joseph, son of David … do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20-21)
The name Jesus is how English speakers say ‘Yeshua’ — a Hebrew name meaning “the Lord saves”. The salvation of humanity was Jesus’ mission from the very start. Knowing of Jesus’ soon arrival, his great-uncle Zechariah burst into worship:
Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Saviour from the royal line of his servant David, just as he promised through his holy prophets long ago. (Luke 1:68-70)
The remainder of Jesus’ life was a fulfilment of all these words spoken over Him. Jesus lived a sinless life and befriended outcasts and sinners during a whirlwind three years of teaching, healing and miracles. Then at around the age of 33, He was convicted as a blasphemer and was crucified on a Roman cross.
Finally, in fulfilment of prophecy and to the surprise of His grieving friends, Jesus rose from the dead, securing the salvation of everyone who believes. As the most famous passage in Scripture declares:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
After travelling around a week on foot from their hometown of Nazareth, Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary arrived in the village of Bethlehem, ready to fulfil their census obligations. In his Gospel account, Luke explains the unusual setting for the birth of Jesus:
And she [Mary] brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)
So casually worded is Luke’s account — and so often repeated each Christmas — that we can easily miss the significance of it. There was no room for God in the world He came to save.
And the same has been true ever since. The secular West is a prime example of humanity’s response to God. We enjoy the bounty of His blessings more than any generation that has ever lived. But we work hard to push God to the periphery of our society and our lives.
The silent whisper of Christmas is simple: make room for Jesus in your life. Believe in Him, surrender your heart to Him, give your life to Him in consecration. Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), who wrote O Little Town of Bethlehem, couldn’t have said it better:
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in
Or in the words of the apostle Paul,
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
The final Christmas theme for us to consider is consummation. Christmas is our annual reminder that God is in the business of interrupting history and bringing human affairs to a crescendo.
Because of the linear way in which we view time, there is a dangerous lie in secular logic that says all things will simply continue as they are. This mindset isn’t new. The apostle Peter witnessed it in his own day when he warned of certain ‘scoffers’:
They will say, “What happened to the promise that Jesus is coming again? From before the times of our ancestors, everything has remained the same since the world was first created.” (2 Peter 3:4)
If we remove God from the picture, we can still expect development and progress in the world. But we lose any sense that time has an end-point. There is no ultimate destination, no final conclusion to the tangle of human history.
Christmas says otherwise. As we have seen, Christmas marks the entry of God into our world, bringing salvation to our lost race and calling us to consecrate ourselves to Jesus.
Moreover, the birth of Christ split time in half. All these centuries later, every date on our calendar still points to him. December 2021 is — despite a few accounting errors along the way — our best guess at 2,021 years since the arrival of Jesus at that first Christmas.
God is bringing history to a glorious conclusion. The question that Christmas asks each one of us is, are you ready?
Are you ready for God to interrupt your world? Are you ready to meet your Maker? Are you ready for history’s final, grand crescendo?
Originally published at the Daily Declaration.