The True Meaning of Christmas

Christmas Eve, Year A.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Titus 2:11-14

Isn’t it strange that every year we keep asking the same question? It’s baffling that after all this time, year after year, every cheesy Christmas special, every overplayed song, every awkward holiday party, and every greeting card struggle with this same basic question. Every year, without fail, as soon as we awake from our carbohydrate-induced comas, we are assaulted with jazz renditions of public domain Christmas melodies, a huge pile of new social and familial obligations, and endless “Holiday” sales. And while all this is going on, every news anchor, radio host, celebrity, politician, and two-bit preacher tells us to “slow down, and consider the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas”.

You know, I really would like to slow down and ponder the “true” meaning of Christmas, but I’ve got two problems: 1. How am I supposed to “slow down” when everyone and everything is asking more from me? How can you in one breath tell me to “slow down” when in the next I’m told that I have end-of-year deadlines to meet, 3 holiday parties to plan, an ugly sweater to buy, cards to write and mail, a turkey to cook, shopping to do, estranged relatives I have to pretend to like, presents to wrap, and about 14 church services I’m supposed to go to? Even if I were to take just a minute to catch my breath, or if I’ve finally been struck by the magical “holiday spirit” (and it isn’t just eggnog this time), how am I supposed to reflect on the “true meaning of Christmas” when no one really seems to know what it is?

When I watch TV I’m told that the true meaning of Christmas is family, or the “brotherhood of all mankind”, or something… You know I’ve got to be honest with you, it’s sort of hard to tell what the people on TV think the true meaning of Christmas is. There are a lot of really sweet things about kids getting into *wacky adventures*, Santa sometimes shows up, I think one or two had puppies and toys in it, but they all end up as a family in the end, I think? It’s tricky because for every 5-7 minutes they tell their story about generosity and love for family, they cut to about 25 minutes of commercials. And of course the commercials tell me the true meaning of Christmas is time with family, and the simple things, like showing my wife how much I love her by buying her a car without her consent or knowledge, sticking a comically large bow on top of it, and showing off my financial irresponsibility to her on Christmas morning. Just the little things.

The songs tell me the true meaning of Christmas is Santa, opening presents, snow, going home, not being able to go home, commercial interruptions, and occasionally, if the hymn is old or popular enough, the true meaning of Christmas gets a visit from Jesus.

It’s kind of hard to tell where Jesus fits into this whole “true meaning of Christmas”, because there are a lot of people who get really mad if you don’t talk about Jesus all time, or if, God forbid, the coffee cups go from saying “Merry Christmas” to “happy holidays”. Nothing says, “peace on earth,” like claiming there is a “war on Christmas” every year. At the same time, we keep getting told by lawyers and brand managers that if we talk too much about Jesus in the “true meaning of Christmas” we might lose some sales or alienate some people.

With so many voices shouting at us to be quiet and contemplate the “true meaning of Christmas”, on top of the all the obligations the holidays afford us, it’s no wonder that in casual conversation we talk about “making it through” the holidays. It’s no wonder that the trees are on the curb by New Year’s Day and everyone who was forced to listen to holiday music on repeat at their job can’t wait to be free from the tyranny of Jingle Bells.

It’s a sinful world, it seems like nothing is sacred anymore. Even something as pure as celebrating the birth of a child has been codified, billed, and capitalized on.

Yet it is this very world that God chose to redeem. For all the madness, hypocrisy, and distraction this is the world that God has redeemed.  The miracle of the Christmas is God’s faith in us. That for all the things we have done and left undone, God believes we are worth saving. In that birth from a far away time and place, the immortal, immutable, almighty God became fully man, and lived the whole human experience to save us.

Because we have heard this story a thousand times, and it has been so long and the world has gotten so complicated, it’s easy to forget the reality of the Incarnation. Because we are worried that we should dirty the Incarnate God with our petty and sinful world, we crystalized the story of the incarnation with a layer of nostalgia and piety so thick we have turned the characters into porcelain figurines that we put on our lawns or on our shelves. Perfect, clean, but only present for decoration. But they were real people, who lived real lives. They laughed, they cried, they celebrated, and they mourned. Jesus knows what it’s like to be a kid during the holidays, the excitement of a break from the routine, the hope for good presents. He knows what it’s like to have a job, to suffer through awkward parties with extended family, the stress of preparing the house for the flood of guests during the holidays. Jesus knows the joy of a wedding, the despair of losing a friend, the hope for a better future, the disappointment with things as they are. God lives among us, has seen the world, and chooses to save it.

It’s a sinful world, but through Jesus it has been made sacred. For as much as we look at all the distractions and complications that come with the season, even in its absurdity, Jesus has shown us how to see the glory of God in all places. If you look to seek and serve Christ in all persons, you will see the miracle of the Incarnation. In that awkward holiday party when you get a moment to talk to someone you see every day, yet do not know, you will find Christ. In sharing a meal with that relative who drives everyone crazy, to be together with them, you will find Christ. Even to sit back and laugh about all the absurdity that comes with the season, yet still love it all the same, there you will find Christ.

What then, is the true meaning of Christmas? To be honest such a large and profound question is too much for me to answer in any concise or satisfactory way. What I can offer you are the reflections of someone far wiser. This is an excerpt from a letter written by theologian Diedrich Bonhoeffer to his parents while he was being unjustly prisoned. It’s dated December 17th, 1943.

“Of course you can’t help thinking of my being in prison over Christmas, and it is bound to throw a shadow over the few hours of happiness which still await you in these times…I need not tell you how much I long to be released and to see you all again. But for years you have given us such lovely Christmases, that our grateful memories are strong enough to cast their rays over a darker one. In times like these we learn as never before what it means to possess a past and a spiritual heritage untrammeled by the changes and chances of the present. A spiritual heritage reaching back for centuries is a wonderful support and comfort in the face of all temporary stresses and strains. I believe that the man who is aware of such reserves of power need not be ashamed of the tender feelings evoked by the memory of a rich and noble past, for such feelings belong in my opinion to the better and nobler part of humankind…

For the prisoner the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And that faith gives the prisoner a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here to insignificance.

On Christmas Eve I shall be thinking of you all very much, and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy that I am not allowing my troubles to get the better of me…

It will certainly be a quiet Christmas for everybody, and the children will look back on it for long afterwards. But for the first time, perhaps, many will learn the true meaning of Christmas.” 

Diedrich Bonhoeffer

One thought on “The True Meaning of Christmas

  1. Loved this! Thanks for sending! U must b very busy these days! Think of u often and know u r doing a great job n Harrisonburg! We still miss u! Joe finally got home Dec 10th. He had a few more complications but finally turned the corner. He is still recovering and it will take more time! Hugs to u!


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