First of all, Merry Christmas! Yes, here in the Philippines we get it 16 hours earlier than those of you on the US West Coast. Yay for us.
So, with everyone talking about the “True Meaning of Christmas” this time of year, including a rather meta discussion of it by xkcd, I thought I’d throw in my two cents.
First, yes, I subscribe to the Charlie Brown theory of the true meaning of Christmas. Yeah, it’s about Jesus. No surprises there.
However, this year, I feel freer to do stupid celebratory things, like have my picture taken with Filipino Santa in the mall. Even though Santa has no real connection to the coming of Jesus, I’ve been realizing that not all our celebrations need to have symbolic relevance to the thing we are celebrating.
For example, at a wedding, often we dance and we eat good food. Now, is dancing truly symbolic of the marriage? What about the banquet? Does that MEAN something relevant to the marriage?
Maybe a little, but that’s not why we dance and feast. We dance and feast because they are simply ways of celebrating. They are sort of generic celebratory actions. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
So, take all these secular-ish parts of the Christmas celebration like Rudolph, giving gifts, putting up a tree, and Santa. In one sense, these have little (or nothing) to do with celebrating the birth of Jesus. At the same time, the very fact that we are giving gifts and putting up decorations and running around in red fluffy suits shows that we are celebrating something. Let’s have that object of our celebration be Jesus, even if our customs lack symbolic value.
Put another way, giving gifts doesn’t have to symbolize that Jesus was born. We simply celebrate his birth by giving gifts.
Imbuing symbolic value
Now, an even better way to do this is to imbue symbolic value into our customs.
So, for those who don’t know this, most of our Christmas customs are rooted in ancient pagan holidays. Christmas is December 25th because the Catholic church wanted to replace the pagan holiday “Saturnalia” with a “Christian” holiday. Many of the customs such as gift giving come from Saturnalia. Others come from other pagan traditions celebrated at the winter solstice. Santa riding his sleigh, for example, looks suspiciously like Thor riding a similar sleigh. Thor the Germanic god, that is, not Chris Hemsworth.
However, that doesn’t stop us from taking these customs and attaching new symbolism to them.
So what if the Christmas tree is related to old pagan celebrations? We can still put up a tree and use it to celebrate the fact that Jesus was nailed to a tree for our sins.
So what if giving gifts was a Saturnalia thing? We can use it to celebrate that Jesus was God’s gift to us.
And Jesus was the light of the world. So put up some obnoxious flashing LEDs.
The church I attended as a kid had an annual tradition of decorating a Christmas tree during a service and explaining the symbolism of each part of the decorations. What a great idea.
You see, the story of creation is the story of God redeeming all things through Jesus.
He takes sinful and broken people and transforms them into sons and daughters. But they remain the same people, simply redeemed.
He is truly reconciling ALL things to himself.
Birth versus incarnation
My second big mindset shift this year has been from “birth” to “incarnation.”
Sometimes it bothers me that so much of Christmas is about the birth story of Jesus: shepherds, wise men, no room in the inn, manger. Because the birth story of Jesus doesn’t seem very relevant to my life.
Maybe I was talking to a Catholic friend a while back and it caused this shift, but now I see the real reason for the celebration as the incarnation of Jesus. The advent (literally: “coming”)
The birth simply means that he came.
The incarnation is WHY he came.
The birth is a bit isolated. It’s just the story of the circumstances how he came into the world.
The incarnation is full of meaning. God became a man and made his dwelling with us, and he bore our infirmities and pains.
Rather than saying, “Happy birthday Jesus,” I find myself saying, “Thank you Jesus for becoming one of us.”
The incarnation frees me up for more of the Bible to be about Christmas. For example, here’s a verse that is SUPER relevant to my life, has nothing to do with the birth, and has everything to do with the incarnation:
Hebrews 2:14-15: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
He became flesh and blood, like us, so that he could die and free us from the fear of death.
Fear of death? Very real problem. Addressed by the incarnation.
See, the incarnation includes not just the birth but the entire life of Jesus. It’s his miracles, his authority, his suffering, his death, and his resurrection.
That is cause for celebration.
So, Merry Christmas.
Eat good food. Celebrate the coming of Jesus with gifts and Jingle Bells and church services and by reading Luke 2. Celebrate with trees and lights and hymns and prayers. Just remember that in all your celebrations, you are celebrating this:
“For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Heb. 2:17-18)
Don’t forget the people who are hurting and mourning this Christmas! Comfort them and be there for them to listen to them.
Merry Christmas from 88 degree, 62% humidity Manila.