It will soon be Christmas. It is a time rich in meaning, both cultural and religious.
Familiar carols will carry on the wind through neighborhoods trimmed with lights. Families, though separated by distance or indifference, may reconnect around an elaborate meal, and exchange gifts. Somewhere in the maddening crowd, and the crazed rush to get things done, we might slow down long enough to share our goodwill in a little black kettle, a toy drive, or even help out in a local soup kitchen.
Those are some of the TRAPPINGS of Christmas, certainly. But what does it MEAN?
For all the trappings, for all the customs, for all the generosity, and hustle and bustle, Christmas is still centered on two things — one event, and one person. Since it’s a real event, and a real person, “private interpretation” simply fails.
Many even celebrate Christmas without that event and that person in mind. Nothing stops them from getting together — much like Superbowl Sunday — but what they do NOT have is Christmas.
There is a “common, generic, and politically-correct” understanding of Christmas. It showed up in Obama’s Tree-Lighting speech.
More than 2,000 years ago, a child was born to two faithful travelers who could find rest only in a stable, among the cattle and the sheep. But this was not just any child. Christ’s birth made the angels rejoice and attracted shepherds and kings from afar. He was a manifestation of God’s love for us. And He grew up to become a leader with a servant’s heart who taught us a message as simple as it is powerful: that we should love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.
That teaching has come to encircle the globe. It has endured for generations. And today, it lies at the heart of my Christian faith and that of millions of Americans. No matter who we are, or where we come from, or how we worship, it’s a message that can unite all of us on this holiday season.
It is generic, “safe” and won’t offend our pluralistic culture; exactly those things make it meaningless.
“This was not just any child.” Correct, but in what way? If he was anything less than God Himself come to live among us, he was an absolute fraud. Seeing the range of reactions to that claim, this is hardly something that will “unite” all of us “regardless of how we worship”.
The angels came, not with a spectator’s curiosity, but to proclaim the birth of a Saviour. They broke into song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
If you took a superficial meaning of that text, it might fit nicely with the President’s quote. But then you’d have something that doesn’t line up with reality. Look around. You won’t see a whole lot of peace and goodwill. It never materialized. The fabled “brotherhood of man” doesn’t get along very well in real life.
The quote is not referring to the response of men to each other, but the good will of God toward man. This point — so obvious that some miss it — is tied to the event they’re proclaiming: the birth of Christ Jesus.
Jesus didn’t just come like Keanu Reeves, with a “be excellent to each other”, or like some swami to “teach us a better way”. Moses already taught us one, and we failed epically. What Jesus did went deeper. Here’s a clue: his name means “God saves”.
He didn’t come with platitudes to tell us that God isn’t really bothered by sin. He was constantly telling people to repent of sin, to “go and sin no more”. No, he came to tackle that problem head on. Sin isn’t a minor moral misstep. It is an act of rebellion against the holiness of God, and puts us on a collision course with Final Judgment.
But some might ask — why doesn’t he just forgive us all?
Remember the outrage when the “affluenza” judge showed “mercy”? People were rightly angry. It was a black mark on the judge, and the whole legal system, that judgment failed society and the victims. Any judge, even God, cannot ignore sin without staining his own character and reputation.
The birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, allowed both Justice AND Mercy to be satisfied (Romans 3:26). It let God grant Mercy to a wayward humanity he loved enough to save, right in the midst of their hate for Him.
Peace between people groups is good, (and commanded!), but is not what started the angels singing. Christ has come, offering a gift to any who will receive it. He is conquering the sin that separates us from God. He is washing away our guilt. With the guilt gone, we can finally have true Peace with God.
What is Christmas? It is not a generic holiday of generic belief and generic goodwill. Not at all!
It is a day centered around a specific belief in the reality of One God who loves humanity enough to rescue us from sin and Final Judgment through the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God.
The grace he offers us is so perfect for a Christmas story. It helps us understand this offer. Grace is a gift that was not earned by us, but by Christ. Just as a child doesn’t earn his Christmas present, we don’t earn our salvation.
Merry Christmas to you and yours as I wish you that greatest of all Christmas gifts: the One whose name it bears.
Image: Courtesy of: http://myjourneywithdepression.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/saturday-9-blue-christmas/