I’ve been struck by how many of us Christians cried out for, or pointed out, ‘the’ real meaning of Christmas this year. Sure, it’s the same every year but we were joined, this year, by professing agnostics, atheists and those of other faiths all suggesting they knew ‘the ‘ real meaning of Christmas. The slight problem I discovered was that ‘the’ real meaning of Christmas doesn’t seem to exist, or to put it another way, it is more subjective than we would like to admit.
Let’s begin with the two meta-categories I observed in the Christian understanding of ‘the’ real meaning of Christmas through my experience online; creation focussed and redemption focussed. These two categories are not mutually exclusive but we Christians online seem to emphasise one over the other and, sometimes, we push one side to the detriment of the other. I am aware that we need both to have a balanced view of God’s mysterious work in being born in a stable but have we, in a desire to have a simple and direct message to preach/tweet, lost the nuanced mystery all together?
I’m not sure if its the Christians I follow on Twitter and Facebook but before the #christmasstartswithchrist sermons came out, the advent tweets that filled my timeline majored on the ‘creation focussed’ category of ‘the’ real meaning of Christmas. This category consist of sentiments like, ‘God loves us and wanted to come and tell us by becoming one of us’, ‘He wanted to be close to us’, ‘God stands with us to let us know its ok’. None of these are wrong. I’ll repeat that because what I am about to say may be interpreted as criticising these phrases: None of these are wrong! However… Alongside these were implicit expressions that humanity is essentially good and God delights in all that we are. We have been told by others that we’re broken and we interpret that as worthless and, like the presents that need a receipt that currently sit by your door to be taken back, we need to be discarded. So God sent Jesus to say that that is a lie. God came to say we are worthy. God came to say we are the pinnacle of creation and deserve to be given the abundance of His gifts, the greatest being love. All this is not altogether false but there’s a massive temptation to stop there and therefore miss out; to force through this pastoral message and miss the prophetic (not that pastoral and prophetic are polarised concepts!)
We live in a society which focuses on the individual and self-esteem. Due to our experienced and observable lack of self esteem we seek to have lots of confidence because we feel if we had that then we’d feel better about ourselves. The irony of this is that in our attempts at building our confidence we create false personas as we never deal with the root of the low self esteem. We go to counsellors, we reflect and the answer is to manufacture reconciliation or to try and forget. It is very man-made confidence. Christianity seems to have a solution: someone/thing outside of us who gives us confidence. God comes to give us worth. This is true but we often forget the cost of this. What we settle for and we preach is ‘cheap grace’ as Bonhoeffer calls it.
The second category which, this year, was not so popular amongst my followees on Twitter; redemption focussed. The reason for Christ’s birth is to take on human flesh to transform humanity. It is Stanley Hauerwas (“What? Ned is drawing on the work of Hauerwas? That is a surprise!”) who suggests,
Jesus was the bearer of a new possibility of human and social relationships…the incarnation is not the affirmation of God’s approval of the human… but God’s breaking through the borders of man’s definition of what is human to give a new formative definition of the human in Jesus.(Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character, p.48)
In this case, the meaning of Christmas is not just that God came to be with us but came to transform us and invite us to new life. The possible problem I have with ‘creation focussed’ messages of Christmas is that it implies that God’s radical new thing is that He is with us whereas before He wasn’t. This is a lie. God was with His people in the Old Testament. He stood with them, He spoke to them, He encouraged, inspired and dwelt with them; yes in a limited way but from the moment He called Abram He revealed that He, unlike other Gods, was with His people where they were and not on top mountains, static and requiring a journey or pilgrimage. If we don’t specify this it can easily be missed and the implication is that ‘the’ meaning of Christmas is that God is close to us. This is not wrong but Jesus wasn’t the first revelation of this characteristic of God.
God became flesh so He could transform/redeem it which means that humanity was faulty. The flesh is prone to sin, decay, brokenness and temptation that we cannot face. Humanity is separated from God because of the presence of this ‘sin’ in us. Christ came to change that in a new way. Prior to Christ, God had to protect our sinful flesh from the radiance of His pure, unadulterated holiness which, if we stand in the presence of with sin we die; His goodness burns, erodes and destroys all that is not good and that is a painful process. When Christ united divinity and humanity, uniquely He began the process of inviting us to participate in such ontology. Paul admits that only if we die to sin can we be raised to new life in Christ. That there needs to be a death before their can be rebirth.
I know that if we emphasise this ‘redemption focussed’ meaning of Christmas too much we belittle the flesh and begin to sound too gnostic, i.e. flesh=bad spirit=good, but if we don’t mention it or hold onto its importance at Christmas then we can forget about Christ’s need to die in order to invite us to resurrection life. In solely preaching ‘creation focussed’ meaning of Christmas we heretically miss out new-creation! We do this because we are ashamed of our sin.
So that’s the Christian understandings of Christmas, what about non-Christians?
Not surprisingly they love the meaning of Christmas that promotes the Divine sanctioning and blessing of humanity. “I don’t believe in God but essentially what Christians believe is that if He did exist He would tell us that we’re ok and don’t need to change.” My dear Buddhist friend (mainly online relationship!), Stella Duffy, posted a link to a Guardian article by Jim Al-Khalili entitled ‘Why This Atheist Celebrates Christmas‘. In it he exclaims,
Just as we don’t need God to be good, we don’t need God as a reason to celebrate on 25 December. So, happy Christmas everyone, whether you are commemorating the birth of Jesus or simply celebrating the fact that you and I are here because of a wonderful sequence of highly improbable accidents, all obeying the laws of nature, and so we really should try to make the most of it. Now is as good a time as any to share that with all the family and friends who make it all worthwhile – especially since the world didn’t end on Friday.
This final paragraph starts out with a contentious belief which he cleverly hides under a presupposition, ‘we don’t need God to be good.’ This is what some of us were preaching. Jesus didn’t come because we were bad but to tell us we were good. The problem with this, from a Christian point of view, is that Jesus doesn’t believe this, ‘”Why do you call me good?” Jesus said “No one is good but God alone.”‘ (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19) Our society finds it easy to accept someone as ‘good’, at funerals we remember loved ones as ‘they were a good person.’ Only God makes someone a good person and even then only if they acknowledge their natural tendency towards selfish, mixed motivated actions.
Stella then sent me her Buddhist take on the meaning of Christmas. Having grown up, reasonably happily in a Catholic family she offers a little more nuance to the atheist writer above. Her article was interestingly named ‘Not Throwing the Baby (Jesus) Out with the Bath Water‘. In this personal account she talks about the need to be with others, to sing, celebrate and pray with others and in being with others focussing on the same goal we achieve a transcendental experience. I am all for gathering together because if we truly are with others and focussed on them rather than ourselves we come into contact with difficult difference of the ‘other’ and this experience is likely to lead to a transformation of self.
And that’s what I’m grateful for. The sense of spirit that praying/singing/celebrating together gives us, which I now believe is a sense of human spirit. (Stella Duffy)
It is difficult to specify the distinction between Stella’s view and my own but it centres on this redemption of humanity through Christ which Stella, being a Buddhist, does not recognise. Ironically, I feel, Stella has thrown the baby Jesus out and kept the bath water. Humanity is, in the Christian narrative, broken, untrustworthy, self seeking, confused, contradictory, fallible, fragmented and in desperate need of salvation; salvation from itself! Humanity on its own is not to be celebrated or affirmed. God, however, in His great mercy and love came down to redeem that which was ‘worthless’ and start a ‘new-creation’.
When we preach our faith we must ensure we don’t forget the distinctive and radical message of our God and our Salvation. Let us not miss the opportunity to speak prophetically into the lives of people who don’t need to be told that they’re ok and good but that need to be told they can be ok and good if they acknowledge their need for God. Christmas is a celebration but not of what we ‘naturally’ are but what we can be given if we know how to recieve such a gift. I’ll finish on John’s prologue,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Let us receive the grace offered to us by God alone and not the cheap kind offered to us by society and humanity. For ‘the’ real meaning of Christmas is that God gave us grace, salvation and redemption through Jesus Christ who came not to condemn but in order that those who believed in Him would have eternal life.