By Michael Mendis
Whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and commercialism of the Christmas season. We wonder what gifts to get our loved ones, we seek out the best prices, and we map out our holiday travel plans. Often we hear the question asked: what is this season all about? The answers we get as a response vary; some speak vaguely of “joy” or “love”, others say that it’s about giving back to people, and still more claim that Christmas is about family.
We Christians are often quick to point out that the meaning of Christmas is found in the name itself: the birth of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, our idea of Jesus at Christmas is often reduced to a little baby, a manger, shepherds, and a few wise guys riding camels. In truth, the story of Christmas in the Bible is a striking tale of love, miracles, and deep sacrifice. So let’s go back to the basics and look at the Christmas story as we find it in the Bible.
In order to properly talk about Christmas, we’ll have to provide a little bit of context from the very beginning of the Bible. When God made the first humans, Adam and Eve, he made them to be perfect, just like himself; God and humanity lived in harmony in the Garden of Eden, and humans looked forward to living forever with their loving creator. But then Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sinning against him, and they were no longer worthy of remaining in his presence. They were cursed with death and eternal separation from God, and the rest of the world was cursed along with them.
Ever since then, sin has been the norm among humanity, and is the root cause of all the tragedy we see around us today: murder, theft, deception, disease, death itself. Everyone is guilty of disobeying God; not a single one of us can stand before the one who made us and honestly say that we are just as good as he is. And just like Adam and Eve, our penalty for sin is death, followed by an eternity spent apart from God, apart from every blessing that he could provide, apart from the one who made us and who knows us better than we know ourselves. It is only in this context that the wonder of Christmas can be understood.
God didn’t have to do anything for us sinners. He lived safely and securely in heaven, and had no need of our praise or love; he had everything he needed before he created us anyway, and he could have rightly cast aside the entire human race for its rebellion. But even though we hated him and disobeyed him at every turn, God still loved us. He loved us so much that he couldn’t bear the thought that we would all be lost to him forever, that we wouldn’t be able to spend eternity with him as we were originally supposed to. Nonetheless, he couldn’t just turn a blind eye to the sins we’d committed against him, and against our fellow man; all that death and pain and destruction was serious, and justice couldn’t just be shrugged off without a thought. So God decided to do something remarkable, something unfair: he decided he was going to punish himself for all the wrong that we had done, so that we wouldn’t be punished.
As part of this process, he had to step down from heaven, where everything was perfect, and become a human being himself, beginning a life on this harsh world as the man we know as Jesus. This incredible and miraculous act of sacrifice is the event we Christians celebrate every year at Christmas. It was a truly remarkable event, in many ways. He was born to a virgin, a young woman named Mary; such a miraculous birth had never happened in all of history. Angels from heaven appeared in the sky, declaring the arrival of the one who would save humanity. And it was an event that had been prophesied for thousands of years; the “wise men” that we recognize from the story of Christmas were scholars who knew these ancient prophecies, and traveled far from their home to see the prophecies fulfilled in Jesus.
Yet despite these miracles and wonders associated with Jesus’ birth, in many other ways it was far from a glamorous event. He wasn’t born in a palace or temple; he was born in a stable, because no one would give his earthly parents a proper place to have a baby. His mother didn’t have a midwife to help with the birthing process. His arrival wasn’t attended by religious leaders or government officials; the only onlookers were his parents, the animals in the stable, and simple shepherds to whom the angels had appeared. And when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem and asked King Herod where they could find Jesus so that they could worship him, the king plotted on how to kill Jesus! Herod’s plot failed, but it wouldn’t be the last time that people in power sought Jesus’ death.
It is in all of these things that we see the meaning and wonder of Christmas: that God, who lived in heaven and had no need of us sinners, loved us enough to become one of us, to be born in the humblest of conditions, for a world that did not want him and would one day kill him. Such love and sacrifice is unparalleled in history, and as Christians it is what fuels our joy and thankfulness during this time of year (and indeed throughout our lives). We give gifts to others, not because of some myth of a fat guy in a flying sled, but in remembrance of the gift of Jesus and of our salvation. We celebrate and sing songs not simply because they make us feel warm and fuzzy when we do so; we do those things out of gratitude to the one who gave up so much for our sake, and to rejoice in the fact that we can now look forward to spending all of eternity with him.