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Friday
Dec052008

Comprehending Christmas

It is difficult for me to convey what Christmas means to me. The joy and hope that it brings to me is beyond what I can put into words. And the older I get, the better it gets. The meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ gets richer and more full the more I attempt to comprehend it. Yes, I go a little crazy on the traditions, songs and “feelings” of the season. (I’ve got quite a reputation among my friends as being a Christmas freak.) But that is just the result of a lifelong growing awareness of the meaning of the incarnation.

I have the privilege each year of preaching and teaching on the incarnation. It is an honor and it is a frustration. Have you ever tried to explain something that is too wonderful to explain? You want so badly for your listeners to feel and experience something that you yourself cannot comprehend, much less explain.

Last Christmas my wife bought me a devotional book comprised of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All year long I’ve looked forward to reading his insights on Advent. I knew this brilliant theologian and Christian martyr would have plenty to say. I skimmed his topics, but waited for the Advent season to take in his words. I have not been disappointed.

I lit a candle, put on some soft instrumental Christmas music and opened the book to December. Here is the first thing I read…

               Who will celebrate Christmas correctly?

               Whoever finally lays down

               all power, all honor,

               all reputation, all vanity,

               all arrogance, all individualism

               beside the manger.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Christmas is hard to comprehend. God became a man. This is not a fable. This is not a story that ends with a good moral lesson. This is something different. And it’s not just that God put on our humanity, it’s how He did it and why He did it.

What I’ve discovered is that most of us don’t really want to understand it. It’s too compelling and too demanding. We want to celebrate what happened in the manger, but we don’t want it to happen to us. If we fully embraced the manger we would have to fully embrace the cross. If we embraced God becoming fully human it would force us to become fully human—the kind of human He created us to be.

So instead, we tend to go for the trappings rather than the substance. We want to celebrate the “Prince of Peace” but we still want to justify the use of violence. We sing about the “poor baby” in the manger, but we love the prosperity preachers who teach us that He came so we could be rich. We commemorate the powerless child whose parents had to flee to Egypt because they had no recourse against a corrupt government, but we want to demand our rights in a “Christian nation.” (We’ll even threaten the use of our economic power to make sure you say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”)

All of these are ways of saying that it really is just a kid’s story. These are ways of saying that it’s just a fable. These are ways of saying that it’s a beautiful story, but it has little to do with life today—real life.

We grow frustrated when the ideals and teachings of Christmas—the teachings of Jesus Christ—butt heads with reality. But that is precisely the point. Jesus came to butt heads with reality and to lead us into a new reality. If you want working for peace on earth, loving your enemies, and laying down your life to be practical, you’ve missed the whole point. What is “practical” by this world’s standards, in the end, makes no sense at all. Instead of trying to explain away the Sermon on the Mount and make Jesus’ words more palatable, we should ask God to explain it to us. Do we believe Jesus’ message? Or is it akin to a bearded man coming down the chimney. Fun for December, but not worth much in January.

When I say that Christmas is hard to comprehend I’m not talking about our intellectual capacity to understand the story. I’m agreeing with John when he said, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:5). The darkness has a terribly difficult time comprehending—embracing—the light that has invaded it.

It is difficult for me to comprehend the new reality. I know that the manger changed everything. But how do I live every day in the truth of the incarnation? I do agree with Bonhoeffer’s starting point. We must lay down “all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism.” That’s what Jesus did. I wish I could say I’ve done the same, but I’m still in process.

But that’s why Christmas gets better every year. Every year I’m reminded of the unbelievable thing the God of the cosmos did for us. And every year I’m reminded that He calls us to do the same. He became human so that we could become the humans He created us to be. And if He would ask that of us, there is hope that it can happen.

Reader Comments (1)

Great truth about Christmas and especially the quote from.Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was reminded again of Paul's powerful writing in Philippians 2:1-11 of how Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of man as a servant, a sufferer and as a SON- that he may put forth God's gift and plan of redemption into action.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKent S. Beatty

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