Dates: December 25th-January 5th (every year)
A Brief History
In both the Eastern and Western Church, the season of Christmas (also known as Christmastide) begins on the 24th & 25th of December and stretches 12 days until The Epiphany on January 6th. Indeed, the 12 days of Christmas is not just a song about a partridge and a pear tree, but is an ancient Christian tradition of feasting, generosity, and merriment that celebrates the great gift of God in the incarnation of Jesus and the coming of the True Light into our world. The practice of celebrating the birth of Christ started sporadically in the ancient churches, but a first mention of celebrating it on the 25th of December comes from 336 in Rome.
The Themes of the Season
It is important to understand Christmas as season distinct from Advent, which has preceded it. Advent, as we have previously written, is a season that focuses on the second coming of Jesus and the reality of living in the “in-between time:” longing, lamenting, waiting, and hoping for the new advent of Jesus Christ in the midst of a broken, unjust, immoral, and sorrowful world. Advent is a season of preparation, lament, and repentance to retrain, reform, and renew our deep love for Christ. Christmas, in contrast, is a season of splendid celebration! If Advent is the fast, then Christmas is the feast. It is a direct and deep meditation and celebration of the birth & incarnation of Jesus into our world. It is a time to focus on the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Gloria in excelsis Deo of the angelic host above the Shepherds, the nunc dimittis of Simeon, the Magnificat of Mary, the joyous pronouncements of Elizabeth and Anna the Prophetess. Christmas has within it an abundance of meaning and significance, but let’s explore a couple of these themes in more detail:
All the way from heaven down
Just to save me
All the way from heaven down
Just to love me
(All The Way From Heaven Down by Thomas Whitfield)
“Once we have seen Him in a stable, we can never be sure where He will appear
or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation He will descend in His wild pursuit of men.”
(Frederick Beuchner, The Hungering Dark)
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
(John 1:14 in Eugene Peteron’s The Message)
He knows our need
To our weakness is no stranger
Behold your King
Before Him lowly bend
(O Holy Night by Adolphe Charles Adam)
In my last calling as pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Winston Salem, NC, we started an overnight shelter for homeless men during the winter months. Some of the holiest and saddest moments of my ministry met me during those watches of the night when I would stay awake to monitor the shelter while our guests slept. Sad because poverty is miserable, unjust, cruel, and reveals the fragility of human existence. Holy because witnessing another person get ready for bed— cross their feet as they lay on their belly reading a book, grab a mat next to a friend and share in a conversation before falling asleep, and finally lay down to sleep and snore away—is to engage their humanity in a profound way.
Every year, I would ponder the Incarnation of Jesus during this time: THIS is the flesh and blood assumed by the second person of the Trinity. How humiliating and humbling and seemilngly preposterous. THIS flesh,—the snoring, laughing, crying, weak, loving flesh—is the flesh that Jesus takes on to become our Messiah and Redeemer. He manifests himself to us in the form of something we all know very well and have, at one time, been ourselves: a baby. A squealing, squeaking, smiling, drooly, messy, beautiful baby.
Christmas means that God has declared all of the physical stuff of our lives—the blood, sweat, tears, meals, and laughter and all of it—to be worth saving, blessing, and… joining. Christmas means that God has made himself vulnerable. Because, as C.S. Lewis wrote:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)”
This is the love of Christ Jesus: completely vulnerable for the sake of the beloved.
This Christmas, you might feel distant from Jesus, but the story of Christmas tells us that Jesus is not distant from you. No, he has made himself like you in every way, except that he did not sin. He has breathed, loved, played with brothers and sisters, had to deal with stressful family dynamics, searched for his next meal, been rejected, been isolated, been tired, been without money, been betrayed, and been put to death.
The book of Hebrews says it like this
“Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. (Hebrews 2:17–18 NLT)
Jesus took a body like ours so that he could defeat the sin and death that had held us in a deadly prison; he is the liberator of the captives. Or as Zechariah prayed:
"Because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
This is why Christmas is good news of great joy for all people!
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
The Christian life is a life of profound joy and Christmas is an emblematic season for this reality. We rejoice always (Philippians 4:4) because we know that even in the midst of sorrow, the Lord Jesus has been given to us as our companion and our salvation. The gift of God is the Light that has been sent into the world. This Light is our life. This Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4). And so in this season we celebrate the gift and become aware of the hands of the Giver. We are to resist wrapping our hearts around the pleasures and treasures of this life but instead receive whatever material gifts God has given as a means of communing with and tasting of the abundant, generous love of God in Jesus Christ.
So, friends, remember and set before your face the reality of Immanuel (God With Us) and celebrate the Light that has come!
Grace and Peace.