There are now, and long have been, two variations on the Christmas theme. There is the version in which Christmas is a largely commercial enterprise. At its best, this version of Christmas is an exercise in generosity and an opportunity to turn away from professional pursuits and remember the fundamental importance of family. At its worst, it is an unseemly weeks-long binge of expenditure and acquisition, an exercise in rank consumerist materialism, where we do not celebrate the power of God so much as we observe and demonstrate our faith in the power of advertising and credit cards.
The other version of Christmas commemorates the entrance of an eternal God into the whirl of time and history, a God who is Spirit and Love into a world of flesh and violence, a God who became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who came to provide the Way and the Truth and the Life for all humankind.
It is this latter version of Christmas on which I wish to reflect. What does it mean? Today, here and now, what is the significance of Christmas? Why has the church over the centuries cultivated this celebration of the birth of Christ? What do the birth narratives, and the very fact of God's incarnation in Christ, communicate to the world? I will suggest four things:
1) In the Christmas story we read the opening lines of God's love letter to the world.
We often speak of the work of Christ as though God were compelled, by some celestial mechanics of salvation, to do precisely this in order to save us. A blood sacrifice was required, we say, and the only remaining solution was for Christ to become the perfect sacrifice on our behalf. Humankind had to be ransomed, we say, from sin, death, and the devil, and therefore Christ became the ransom.
Yet God was not compelled to do any of this. God Himself is the author and arbiter of all the rules. There is no higher authority above God that forces him to follow regulations or fulfill requirements. God might have annihilated humankind and started over; God might have changed the rules so that no sacrifice and no ransom were necessary. It is not that God could not have done these things; it is that He would not, because God is changeless and just, righteous, and true. All that compels God is His own character, which is not compulsion but self-expression.
Perhaps this is a better way to think of all of God's work, from creation to incarnation to redemption: it is an extended act of divine self-expression, an unfolding of God's character. And what is expressed? What is the character of God made manifest in this story?
Love. Like the creation and restoration of all things, the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ are expressions of a most extravagant divine love. A love that never fails. A love that seeks beyond every river and mountain until the lost sheep is found. A love that will suffer and sacrifice all things on behalf of the beloved, that lays down its life for its friend. The same love that brought us into being in the first place enters, in the village of Bethlehem in the person of Jesus Christ, into a new and more intimate relationship with us. God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten son, so that every person who puts his faith in him will be reconciled to God and brought to live with Him forever.
2) We celebrate in Christmas that God became a person in order to enter into a personal relationship with us.
There once was a time when I was embarrassed to speak of a "personal relationship with Jesus." Surrounded by professors of theology and scholars of religion who looked down their noses at popular expressions of religious devotion, I spoke not of Jesus but of "Christ" or the "Son of God" or (most pretentiously) the "Second Person of the Trinity."
I came to realize that when Christians speak of a personal relationship with Jesus they are expressing, albeit in different language, the inward relationship that mystical theologians have enjoyed and explored throughout the centuries of the church. To "walk and talk with Jesus" is to seek the constant indwelling of Christ, a mystical union that is not abstracted from but united with everyday life and all its activities.
That inward union, that personal relationship, is only possible because God became a person. Our most intimate relationship with God, in other words, is only possible because of the astonishing and impossible event we celebrate at Christmas. God entered into our condition. God became one of us, capable of relating to us not merely as Creator and Mighty God but also as friend, as brother, as beloved. The truck driver who imagines Jesus in the passenger seat as he rolls across the plains of Nebraska, the school teacher who asks Jesus for patience as she nears the end of the school day, the worker in the fields of Alabama who talks and jokes and argues with Jesus as he goes about his work, the crippled child who asks Jesus for the strength and courage to carry on -- all of these people, whatever their education or theological sophistication, give expression to a profound theological truth that is all too often forgotten: that ours is not only a high and mighty God who fashions the suns and measures the span of the heavens, but a God who dwells amongst the lowly, the humble, the contrite, and the suffering.