The Meaning(s) of Christmas

What are we seeking at Christmas? Looking around at both our religious and secular worlds, I see at least four different narratives driving the Christmas season. In the spiritual life, what we receive is very closely tied to what we seek. We may say we want and seek many things, but where do we actually place our heart and intention? I believe it’s essential for all of us who are sincerely seeking God to clarify our intentions around the Christmas season.

The most superficial expression of Christmas is the commercial Christmas. In our consumer culture, Christmas has become an opportunity for massive spending and gift giving. At this level, purchasing and giving gifts is supposed to be our way of expressing love and caring for our friends and family. This ‘Christmas’ focuses on gift giving, including the central role of the mythic gift-giving Santa Claus, is less than two hundred years old, and is closely tied to the rise of the industrial commercial economy in the West. I hope that anyone serious about the spiritual life realizes the insanity of attempting to find real happiness or meaning through buying things.  This type of ‘Christmas’ represents the manipulation of good intentions (the desire to give and love) in the service of the industrial growth economy. In my observation, it is sadly where most people get tricked into spending most of their time and energy around Christmas in our country.  Giving gifts is not an evil in itself, of course, but this commercially inspired emphasis usually obscures the deeper invitation of the holy day, including for most Christian families.

An older, and somewhat deeper, focus of the Christmas season is on the coming together of family in love and fellowship. The emphasis of this second type of ‘Christmas’ is on renewing the bonds of relationship, and reconnecting with loved ones.  Most often, when people in the secular world talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, this is what they are referring to. I do believe that in this level we have already crossed into the realm of virtue. Coming together in love and fellowship, with the emphasis on increased human connection, is clearly a deeper and more sustaining level of meaning than the ‘commercial Christmas’ of the shopping mall. This level of Christmas is similar to American Thanksgiving – a time of gratitude and warmth, with a gathering at the family table as a central image. While this is undoubtedly a good thing, it is still a far cry from the spiritual center of the Christian feast we are invited to celebrate. Coming together in celebration may be a connection to the virtues of love and fidelity, but the gathering in and of itself does not necessarily lead to union with the Source of all love.

A third level of ‘the meaning of Christmas’ is captured by the expression ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’. This level, held only by Christians, is marked by an emphasis on remembering Jesus as the ‘external savior’. I see this remembrance commonly taking on two forms. In conservative churches, there is a focus on giving thanks for the gift of Jesus, who as an adult died on the cross to save us from damnation (often with a strong focus on the ‘substitutionary atonement’ understanding of salvation). In liberal churches, there is often more of a focus on giving thanks for Jesus who as an adult taught us, by word and example, how to live (the ‘moral exemplar’ understanding of salvation). In both cases, the birth of Jesus is really just a way of getting Jesus into the picture, while the adult Jesus accomplishes the real work of redemption thirty to thirty-three years later. Christmas becomes a memorial of remembrance, a time to give thanks to God for the gift of Jesus and the whole life and work of Jesus. Again, I see much good in this level – and in the turning of attention to the life of Jesus. At this level, we actually think about Christmas as a feast about Jesus – which of course, it is. However, it remains a celebration about the life of the savior, rather than a doorway into participation into the life of the savior. The name ‘Christmas’ itself reveals a deeper reality than this level. We do not celebrate ‘Jesus day’, but rather Christ-mas, which literally means the sending forth (‘mas’, from the Latin missa) of Christ, the union of humanity and divinity, into our world.

At this deepest level, Christmas is about God uniting God’s own nature to humanity in the great mystery of faith we call the Incarnation. The early church understood the Incarnation was not merely about Divinity entering into one person, Jesus, but about Divinity entering the entire human race through the one historic person, Jesus. The ancients believed that all human beings shared in one human nature, and that one nature was transformed in the Incarnation. Was this transformation an ‘adding on’ of divine nature? A revealing of an already present yet hidden divinity? Or a restoration of our original ‘image and likeness’ of God? In one sense, it doesn’t really matter – the end result is that the Incarnation reveals that our nature and the nature of God are united. Our calling in the Incarnation is to know as sons and daughters of God, not just to ‘think of ourselves as’ sons and daughters.  Christ, the Word, made his dwelling among us, and we are invited to open to this glorious reality. It really is, as the angels declared, ‘Good news of great joy that will be for all the people’ (Lk 2:10).

The ‘good news’ of Christmas is the same ‘good news’ (Evangelion in Greek) that Jesus taught and lived - that the Realm of God is now at hand, and that we can enter into it by transforming our hearts (metanoia) to see this new reality clearly.  This mystery of God becoming one of us, and one with us, is so profound that the early Church set aside an entire month (Advent) for prayer, fasting, silence and interior preparation to ready the soul for this great gift.  God has come to dwell among us – but are we living with the stillness and receptivity of heart to experience this as a lived reality?

What was the gift we prepared to receive this Christmas?  Was it giving and receiving material gifts?  Was it coming together with family and friends?  Was it thanksgiving for the adult Jesus and what he said and did?  All these things have their place in a whole human life, but in themselves they are not the spiritual heart of Christmas. Have we opened our minds and hearts to Christ, God-with-us, to infuse our hearts and to live through us?  If God longs to give God’s own life to us and to live in and through us, then may we all have the wisdom, the courage, and the sacred desire to seek nothing less this Christmas season. 

Merry Christ-mas to all!

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." - John 1:14

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." - John 1:14