Christians often concern themselves this time of year over “keeping Christ in Christmas”, but of equal or even greater concern must be the question of “which Christ to keep?” It seems these days that we are in greater danger of preserving a counterfeit Christ than eliminating him altogether. Frankly, I’m not sure which is worse.
This struck me while reading a recent Christmas editorial in the Huffington Post Teen column. Here, Jackson Barnett, a high school senior and self-confessing Christian gives us all a lesson on the “true” meaning of Christmas. He writes:
One of the fundamentals of Christianity is that we must share Christ with others who don’t believe in him because Christ is available to everyone. So why should Christian believers…have a monopoly on Christmas? You see, if Bible Belt Christians would step back for a minute, they would truly see something very Christ-like going on all around them… even in those families that are not Christians.
Christmas is love. Christmas is joy. It’s happiness, it’s peace, it’s family, it’s feasting, it’s gift-giving, it’s beautiful…– don’t you see that my description describes Jesus Christ just as easily as it describes Christmas? I don’t care what you are — black, white, straight, LGBTQ, Christian or not — I’m thrilled if you celebrate Christmas. The feeling you feel, whatever your religion, when you are with family and friends is the same feeling I feel in my faith.
If you ever wanted an illustration of the manner in which our post-modern, post-Christian culture is influencing the minds of Christian young people, here it is. In our secular and increasingly pagan culture, ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’ reign supreme. In order to make Christ “available to everyone”, as Barnett suggests, we must necessarily remove any hindrance to making Christ “available”. Forget that Christ already took care of this by graciously providing redemption from sin and acceptance by God for any who turn toward him in repentance because notions like ‘sin’ and ‘repentance’ wreak of ‘intolerance’ (i.e. moral judgment) and ‘exclusion’ and therefore must be expunged from the Christian message.
So what are we left with? We are left with a ‘Christ’ that is little more than a “feeling”. Rather than being the objectively distinct second person of the Trinity, Jesus has become a general ‘spirit’ of filial love that manifests itself as mere sentimentality. As such Jesus becomes “available” to anyone regardless of their religious beliefs or moral conduct.
In the end, if you can enter into such filial sentimentality then you too can experience Christ; or more to Barnett’s point, you already are experiencing Christ but just need to come to the point of realizing it.
Nothing could be further from the truth about Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible, however, and nothing could be further from the true meaning of Christmas. It behooves the Christian family therefore to make Christmas above all else a time to teach truth, and through coming to know truth enter into true worship. (cf. John 4:23)
Let’s Use Christmas To Clarify Christ:
Unfortunately even sincere Christian attempts to “keep Christ in Christmas” can cause us to miss truth. Our reflections on the humility of circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth, and pathos over what the human characters like Mary and Joseph must have felt have there place, but only as a backdrop or an aside to the true significance of the event. At the forefront we must centre all Christmas observance and worship around its true meaning: The incarnation of Christ.
Christmas Is About Incarnation:
If one reads the account of Jesus’ birth from the gospels you cannot help but be struck by the apparent lack of detail. Mark and John of course give no birth account, while Matthew and Luke present it in very factual terms including just enough for their purposes which are ultimately theological. Unlike us, they seem less interested in how people felt about the event, and more in its meaning. Even ‘Mary’s Song’ in Luke tells us more about Mary’s understanding of God than how she must have been feeling at the time.
Does this mean that the gospel writers were uninterested in people’s feelings? Not at all. Rather, they rightly understood that feelings (i.e. our emotional responses to facts) are only of secondary importance. Truth is primary, for without a firm grasp upon it feelings are inevitably misplaced and misleading. And so the Christmas message is first and foremost a message about truth; (i.e. what God did in objective history).
The truth of Christmas can be summed up in one word: Incarnation. The meaning and miracle of Jesus’ birth was the pivotal moment in creation history whereby the Creator took upon himself forever the human nature of his creation. God becoming one of us is the power behind the Christmas story. Both gospel writers highlight this one ultimate point:
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: (cf. Isaiah 7:14) “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)
If we fail to communicate or appreciate the importance of the incarnation as we communicate the message of Christmas, we cannot help but fall into error, and like Jackson Barnett reduce Christmas to loosely defined irrational sentimentality. The ‘spirit of Christmas’ becomes a general feeling of ‘good-will’ that everyone can affirm, each for his or her own reasons. In so doing, the “good news” that the angels proclaimed becomes no news.
The great mystery made known at Christmas however is that God became man. Our Father Creator from whom our sinful rebellion has estranged us has drawn near and made himself known. That is the meaning of Christmas, and it’s consequent implications are what gives all men hope and truly makes God “available to everyone”. J. I. Packer offers this summery:
“The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man – that the second person of the Godhead became the ‘second man’. (1 Cor. 15:47), determining human destiny, the second representative head of the race…” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 58)
As God and Man, Jesus became the second ‘Adam’; one who could represent us all and consequently provide for us all the solution to our estrangement from God produced by the first Adam’s sin. This of course directs us to the Cross, another feature of the Christmas story that cannot be left out. The ‘humility’ of Christmas is not to be found in the features of Christ’s ‘lowly’ arrival in a stable. If we truly understand the incarnation, Christ being born into the splendour of Solomon’s palace would have been equally ‘lowly’. Rather, Paul points to the true humility of God displayed at Christmas:
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)
Teach Christmas at Christmas:
For Christian families celebrating Christmas therefore it is important that we rescue our minds and the minds of our children not only from the ‘Christ-emptied’ observances of our secular culture, but also from the ‘Christ-altered’ version of some misguided “Christian” sub-cultures. To do this I would offer a couple of practical suggestions.
- Take time as families to open the Bible at Christmas. Parents should see Christmas morning as a teachable moment whereby presents, feasting and festivities can be placed into their appropriate context. (i.e. response of celebration for truly “Good News”)
- Read the Christmas narrative from Luke’s gospel, laying appropriate emphasis not on the circumstances of the human characters, but on the meaning of the event. (“So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” – Luke 1:35)
- Include in your Christmas teaching a reading of John’s account in John 1:1-18. If ever a passage was written that spells out the true meaning of Christmas, this is it.
May God truly bless you as you worship God ‘in spirit and in truth’ by celebrating the fact and implications of his incarnation at Christmas.