I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. –Luke 2:10b
In this day and age, as we enter the holiday season, it is not superfluous to ask whether or not we truly understand the meaning of Christmas—even among churchgoers. Though this holiday is celebrated throughout the world and increases in popularity every year, that does not mean that it is properly understood. Although the true importance of Christmas can never be separated from the gospel, the gospel has no appeal for many who want to celebrate the holiday. If some law were passed that Christmas could only be celebrated in the true Christian manner, many would turn away in disappointment and disgust.
Some celebrate Christmas at the holiday counter of commercialism. Certainly the exchange of gifts is not inherently wrong.
Storekeepers fill their stores with decorations and merchandise long before the holiday arrives in hopes that people will get their Christmas shopping done early. Perhaps that should be required of Christians so that they can have the time to meditate properly on the supreme wonder of the divine grace of God made manifest in the flesh. We certainly cannot blame store owners for the vast amount of Christmas merchandise and the plethora of sales that are popular this time of year. For many, the Friday after US Thanksgiving is the day they hope financial rehabilitation takes place in their store and they are once more turning a profit.
Combined with the holiday commercialism, we have the romance and tradition of Christmas: Santa Claus and his reindeer, stockings on the fireplace, holly and mistletoe, trees and trimmings. Some may regard these things as rich symbols of the holiday; others love them for the nostalgia that comes with them. Still others prize them as mere decorations. Whatever their value may be, Christians must admit that they have very little connection with the great redemptive event that took place many years ago. All too often, they distract from the attention that should be placed on the Son of God made flesh. We must be intent on resting our joy not on the holiday frills plastered all over the countryside but on the glorious theme of Jesus’ birth.
Still others come so close to the true meaning, yet miss it altogether. They celebrate the “cuteness” of Christmas. For them the baby in the manger with the shepherds and wise men gathered around is a symbol of the beauty and innocence of childhood. They linger so long at the improvised bed in the little town of Bethlehem that they fail to see Christ in action. While they sing about the little boy Jesus, asleep on the hay, they do not recall that He was given that name because He would save His people from their sins. Not a word is spoken about human sin and the need of a Savior. Not the slightest suggestion is made that the newborn baby in the manger is the Eternal Son of God from heaven.
There is only one genuine Christmas, and that is the Christmas of God’s holy Word. It is the Word become flesh. It is not a message of human goodness but one of wretched sinners and the inescapable misery that is ours without Christ. The appearance of the incarnate God in a manger is a loud testimony from God that mankind cannot save itself. The child in the manger was not our product, not the gift of man to God, not the flower of the human race. He is the supreme gift of God to man.
Christmas is the greatest miracle of the ages: the appearance of God Himself, the second person of the Trinity, in a human body; the union of God and man in one person. He was and remains God’s marvelous provision for a bankrupt and fallen world, for a helpless and hopeless humanity. The Savior came to us as a baby, not to show us how cute and innocent little babies can look when lying in a manger, but to cover the guilt into which every baby is conceived and born. He became a child so that children as well as adults might be able to inherit salvation.
The coming of God’s Son in the flesh bears fruit in heart-regeneration and character-transformation. If we have the Spirit of Christ, we shall express our love to Him and also to one another. Yet, the love we express to one another is more than mere “goodwill.” It is a love that must be more than good wishes, kindly feelings, and occasional coins dropped into a bell-ringing Santa’s kettle. The love that Christ brings is a love that is sacrificial in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
No angel sang about the goodwill of one man toward another. The goodwill of which the angels sang was the goodwill of God toward the fallen human race. God’s goodwill is His sovereign good pleasure. It is the peace that God bestows on those He calls His own. The recipients of that good pleasure are those whom He has called to save through His Son, Jesus. Real Christmas cheer can only be brought by pointing to Him who is the Lamb of God and the light of the world.
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the co-pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and the editor of The Outlook.