Sunday, December 25, 2011
It happens every year, usually just after Thanksgiving. Stores everywhere, resplendent in their holiday decorations beacon shoppers to their aisles. The wares may be covered in garland and tinsel, but the message is the same as always: Give us your money. That’s why they call the Friday after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” – stores hope to make a large profit on this quasi-official beginning of the holiday shopping season and be “in the black”. And people oblige. Their holiday shopping will not be successful unless they find just the right pair of laser-guided electric scissors for aunt Mildred. Every one of us has slipped into this mode at one time or another, but we all know that this is not what the holidays are all about. Right?
No, the holidays are about family. You, your wife, children and 27 of your closest relatives all jammed into the dining room watching Grandpa wrestle with an overcooked turkey, armed only with Popeil’s electric carving knife. Heaven forbid that uncle Mortie say the wrong thing, or tell the one about the Priest and the Rabbi, and end up insulting cousin Jerry’s girlfriend. And what if cousin Bill decides not to come over for dinner this year – the whole family would be insulted. The holidays would be ruined. Well, maybe that’s not quite what the spirit of the season is either…
I suppose it all could be about the “holiday mood”. All the festive decorations and lavish store windows lend a sense of joy and happiness to the brisk winter air. That is, at least until someone gets offended because there are too many orange lights and not enough green ones, and all the decorations have to be removed due to court order.
Thankfully, while this may be what “the holidays” are all about to most of society, they have little to do with what Christians celebrate on December 25th and the eleven days thereafter. Don’t misunderstand: My family is just as “normal” as every other family that eats, fights and shops for that perfect present. However, while we all have imposed these rituals on Christmas, they have nothing to do whatsoever with it’s meaning.
“Of course not,” you may retort. “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men, being nice to your fellow man. That’s what Christmas is all about.”
Looking at the red and green splendor of a fully dressed Marshal Field’s window (and it will always be Marshal Field's store to me, Macy's notwithstanding), one may think that sugary sentimentality, nostalgia and contrived feelings of good will is the extent of the meaning of Christmas, and for many this may be the case. However, Christmas is much more significant than that.
“Oh yes,” you say dismissively, “it’s about celebrating the birth of Jesus.”
No. Christmas is about Easter. Hear me out.
Christmas is a celebration that God has not abandoned mankind. It is a celebration that God has kept his promise to redeem fallen man by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In a way, Christmas is as much about the death of Jesus as it is about his birth. The author of Hebrews writes:
But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9: 26b-28).
Strip away from Christmas all the commercialism and nostalgia. Deep beneath the secular layer of snowmen and ½ price sales of this American national holiday is hidden the birth of Jesus Christ – not merely a baby who would grow up to lead a religious movement telling people to “be good”, but the divine Son of God, whose birth was foretold by prophets and heralded by angels. Describing the promised Messiah, the prophet Isaiah wrote:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).
This Jesus, whose birth we celebrate as a nation on December 25th, would go from the manger to the cross, bearing the world’s sinfulness on his shoulders. On that cross he would die as the sacrifice for the sins of all mankind.
That’s what Christmas is about.
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Romans 5: 18-19).
The entire purpose of Jesus’ birth was his death. He voluntarily submitted to the will of God the Father, taking on human nature. He lived a pure and sinless life. He went to his death on the cross – a punishment of which all men are worthy because of our disobedience – so that those who repent and believe in him would not have to suffer it and would be given the gift of eternal life in God’s presence. Of himself, Jesus said:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3: 14-15).
Christmas is about Easter. It celebrates the birth of the world’s savior and the reconciling of men to God – something for which God is solely responsible.
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6: 11-14).
Knowing this, Christendom understands that Christ is the source of peace on earth. Christ is the wellspring from which all good will and love flows. These things flow from believers in whom the Spirit lives, not as acts performed in order to please God or even to make ourselves feel good, but as a joyful response to God’s gift of forgiveness and reconciliation that he has given man in Christ Jesus.