December 22, 2018

The Meaning of Christmas?

“Touches of wonder,

Moments of peace,

Joy that comes from the heart.”

“A season made bright

By joy and love.”

With these and a gazillion other words pregnant with sentiment, the greeting cards of the season are weighing down the sacks of postal workers everywhere, who themselves are probably wondering why such feelings could not be better expressed—on a number of levels—by text or e-mail.

It is always fairly easy to plow through such time-worn thoughts and dismiss them without further reflection beyond the hint of the endorphin-producing warmth of knowing that someone cared enough to send them. But beyond the sometimes cynicism that naturally occurs in the end-of-year holidays, it must be acknowledged that there truly is an authentic reason for the season. Not all greeting-card messages are quite so uninspiring.

“May God’s love always bless you . . .

His joy always fill you . . .

His presence always keep you close

to all that is good!”

These and other such messages attempt to infuse the greetings of the season with a more distinctive spiritual tone by invoking God’s name as the source of joy and love. These are, after all, more than the mere warm-and-fuzzy feelings to which many look forward to at the end of a grim year of disappointment and loss.

The meaning of Christmas has, in fact, evolved—if that word may be excused for the moment—since the birth of the Christ child a couple millennia ago. In fact, the birth itself wasn’t originally imbued with as much meaning as it has been for the past century and a half.

Without wading too deeply into historical scholarship, consider this possible explanation for the way in which we celebrate the holiday of Christmas early in the twenty-first century. Of course, the birth of Christ has been revered from the earliest centuries of the Christian era, but before the latter half of the nineteenth century, Christ’s death and resurrection in the Spring was more popular in human thought than was the assumed time of His birth at the end of each calendar year.

About midway through the 1800s, according to Boyd Hilton, a shift in thinking among Evangelical Christians moved from what he characterized as an Age of Atonement to an Age of Incarnation. The Enlightenment era’s emphasis on balance, symmetry, and justice began to cause some discomfort among some Christians over the evident unfairness of one Being dying for the shortcomings of another. As a result, Christian thought in Britain began to see something more appealing in Christ’s birth than in His death.

It was in this time that the celebration of Christmas, December 25, took on a more sentimentally hopeful atmosphere, with heartfelt carols and twinkling trees and tales told by the fire. The sacrifice, of course, was still there, but the idea of God’s gift of His Son in this literal, corporeal way could be expressed in the celebration of the season in the exchange of gifts with one another.

And somehow, this new way of accentuating the initiation of the plan of salvation on this earth rather than its ultimate and inevitable—given God’s love for humanity—spread even in the secular mind. It does not, of course, mean that non-Christians have since then been drawn to the sacrifice of the incarnation. Though there may be an unclear recognition that the Christmas holiday originated over “a babe in a manger” somewhere back there in mythology, there is little perceived need to put Christ back in a Christmas that can be plenty of heartwarming fun without it.

The gift-giving at the holiday season this time of year too often fails to emulate the original spirit of that singular moment in human history. Today’s celebration of that moment is often referred to as a gift-exchange, but there is seldom any real sacrifice in the giving. In the days leading up to December 25, sometimes is heard the question: “What’s on your Christmas list?” But it was only a few shepherds and wise men of Jesus’ time who truly knew what was on their list.

There is, of course, something very elemental, something especially moving, about the birth of a child. It is a blessing—a gift—of ultimate proportion in the human experience. Though there is, this side of Paradise, the pain and the ordeal that attends to the birth of a child, when it is given into the arms of its parents for the first time, there is a fulfillment of a longing that they never knew.

The idea of the gift of the Christ child in that long-ago starlit night, when that babe in the manger was first given into the bosom of the very earth that He Himself had created, it was the ultimate gift. It was a literal and representative way in which God sacrificially gave a portion of His very Self. There is in that both incarnation and atonement.

Gary B. Swanson edits Perspective Digest.