The words the true meaning of Christmas crop up quite a lot at this time of year. Often they’re heard when someone is bemoaning the rampant commercialism and consumerism that accompanies the run up to Christmas. And then again you hear them when someone is complaining that the Christmas promotions in the shops in the high street and the advertisements on television appear to start earlier and earlier each year. You hear them when someone takes exception to the over-the-top Christmas decorations which some people put up outside their homes.
On the other hand, in an almost opposite case, you will hear them spoken when we hear of a local council or business “cancelling” the Christmas party or refusing to display Christmas decorations or preferring instead a “non-religious” alternative because the celebration of such an overtly Christian festival might offend people of another faith, or none.
There are so many ways we can find a situation in which somebody else, never us, fails to understand the true meaning of Christmas.
So what is the true meaning of Christmas? I googled it earlier. Unsurprisingly I was presented with articles in a lot of Christian websites explaining that it was nothing to do with gifts, or parties, or decorations, or holidays but was about the birth of Jesus, or the fact that Jesus was God becoming human, or that God loved us so much that he sent his Son into the world – and so on. Interestingly, they mostly don’t spend much time talking about the Christmas story. Of course, as a Christian minister, I don’t have a problem with such propositions as these. But I do have a bit of a problem with the whole idea of the meaning of Christmas. Let me explain.
Christmas is no more than a season in the Church’s calendar. It is the time of year when the Church focuses its attention on the mystery of the Incarnation. And that’s a key idea – mystery. In the Incarnation (the way in which God becomes a human being in the person of Jesus) something is happening which we can never fully hope to understand or adequately explain. We can affirm our belief in the Incarnation, as we do Sunday by Sunday when we recite the words of the Nicene Creed, for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man, but as soon as we start to explain this mystery we find ourselves talking nonsense. Indeed, the Nicene Creed itself was created because Christians were talking nonsense, and falling out quite dramatically, about what it meant, among other things, to say that God became human. It was a way of all agreeing that this is how we would express this mystery; and as it’s been around for nearly 1 700 years I think they probably did a pretty good job. The creed affirms rather than explains. I think that’s a good way of approaching mystery.
The first Christians though were no fools. They didn’t try to explain things too much. When they came to write the gospels the different evangelists took different approaches but they all stopped short of trying to explain the Incarnation. Mark affirmed the fact in a few words right at the start of his gospel, the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John affirmed it too, but much more elaborately. His preface is a beautiful affirmation of the fact that the Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father. Matthew and Luke take a very different approach. They weave different lovely stories about the birth of Jesus which by the miracles which appear in them reveal that this baby born in Bethlehem is none other than God’s own Son. They allow us to approach the Incarnation as imaginatively as they did; to reflect, to meditate, to imagine ourselves in the story and, in this way, to enter into the very mystery of the Incarnation itself. The truth is revealed to us by the story.
To try to pin down the true meaning of Christmas is not possible. Christmas simply draws us into the mystery and reveals the God made human and allows us to enter into a relationship with him. And, you know, when you do that all these false meanings of Christmas cease to matter. Let the world enjoy the parties, the businesses make their money – and we’ll affirm that God becomes human and immerse ourselves in the stories.