Some Thoughts on Christmas
I doubt I’m the only person who feels like time speeds up this time of year. Halloween is followed quickly Veterans’ Day, and then Thanksgiving. By the time we finish with Thanksgiving, Christmas season has started. Christmas season seems to start earlier and earlier. When I was a child, we had time to enjoy Halloween and celebrate Thanksgiving before we heard too much about Christmas; now, TV networks start running Christmas programs and stores advertise Christmas sales before Thanksgiving. Some big box stores even begin Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving. All of this rush to shop and plan family gatherings demands so much time and energy that there’s barely time left to think about what Christmas and Advent mean. (I’m convinced that this, and not people saying “happy holidays,” is the real war on Christmas.) What’s the meaning of Advent season and Christmas? What exactly do we celebrate this time of year? What does Scripture say about the birth of Christ? That’s what I’d like to explore in this column.
First, I want to acknowledge that the holiday we call Christmas isn’t mentioned in the Bible, and the Gospels give us differing accounts of Jesus’s birth. (Did you realize that, even though mangers scenes show the Wise Men and the shepherds together, they’re not mentioned in the same book of the Bible? Or that we don’t know how many Wise Men there were?) The Bible doesn’t record the date of Jesus’s birth, and the church didn’t start celebrating his birth until the 5th century. December 25th was chosen as the date so that a celebration of Jesus could replace many pagan festivals that took place that time of year. The Christmas tree, once a pagan symbol, was adopted by Christians to represent life flourishing in winter, and Christ’s conquering of death. Christmas wasn’t celebrated in parts of America until it was declared a federal holiday in 1870. (Much of this information comes from history.com; I’m not an expert on early Christmas celebrations, but this Website is informative.) Yet, despite the fact that the holiday wasn’t always celebrated, Scripture makes it clear that what Christmas represents—God’s coming into our world in the person of Jesus, and his ongoing presence with us—is at the heart of our faith.
The importance of Jesus as the Son of God is made clear in all four Gospels. Matthew tells us early on that Jesus will be called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us” or “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23). He is also the Messiah or Christ (Matthew 1:1), the one anointed by God to redeem humanity from sin. In the next chapter, Matthew shows us a star leading the Wise Men to Jesus’s home. Jesus’s birth causes even the natural world to take note, and will bring people from outside of Israel into God’s kingdom. In Luke, when Mary finds out that she’ll be the mother of the Son of God, she elaborates on what this means: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation… he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:46-53). God’s entry into this world shows his love for humankind. God draws near to those who fear him, favors those who are humble, and humbles those who think highly of themselves. AS Jeremiah said centuries before Christ’s birth, “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your hearth, I will let you find me, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 29:12-14). Our God isn’t a distant God who doesn’t care about us; in Jesus, he becomes part of this world in order to redeem it and provide hope.
Christmas is about God entering this world and changing it for the better. Jesus’s birth gives us hope of seeing God face-to-face. During Advent, we’re challenged to look for God’s activity in our lives, and ask how God’s presence might change how we live. Maybe that means slowing the hectic pace of the season in order to appreciate our family and friends; or it might mean spending less money shopping and more helping those who are less fortunate. Whatever we do during this Advent season, may turn our attention away from consumerism and focus us on the God who saves us.
, and it teaches us that we depend on God. It also moves us to remember those who have less than we do. If we’re thankful for what we have, we’re less inclined to think we need more, and more inclined to help others. That’s an especially important lesson for us to learn with Christmas season approaching: sales will be starting soon, and the media will tell us for the next two months that we should spend more money getting things for each other, regardless of whether any of those things are needed. This month, as we look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, may we all take time to give thanks for what we have, help those who are in need, and be more conscious of what we do or don’t need.