What is Christmas, Really?
by Thirza Peevey
Posted on December 15, 2017
I'm musing on the idea that Christmas almost becomes a weapon against people who have lost loved ones, so we should all tone it down at Christmas. I've fallen for it too, especially after the news media does some sad faced piece about mourning people at Christmas. Now that I've turned the TV off and I'm not hearing those pieces anymore, I'm thinking differently about it.
Show me the person who hasn't lost loved ones? They are probably under five, and these days as late as we are having kids they may be younger than that. The truth of the matter is that when our grandparents were making Christmas for us, and making it merry and joyful, they were mourning almost half a million killed in WW2, and another 80.000 MIA, most of which have proven to be dead in the decades since. They were also mourning the usual contingent of family members dead of old age, lost spouses, and something we don't have to deal with now: many siblings lost in infancy of diseases we prevent now with vaccines and antibiotics. How did they manage? They decided not to think about their grief, and threw themselves into serving others on the holiday. They made Christmas about others instead of their own feelings.
There has been a long war on Christmas, not just the brief one that Bill O'Reilly wants to talk about. The first skirmishes were really the inevitable loss of the war: transferring the meaning of Christmas from the cross to the manger to the Bishop of Myra. and then from the Bishop of Myra to the jolly old elf. That isn't what Christmas is about, and we are teaching kids and teaching ourselves a lie. Christmas is not about a jolly old elf. Saint Nicholas was never white, never an elf, never came down a chimney, never drove reindeer. I think it is pretty certain that he never saw a reindeer in his life, living in Turkey. He didn't lavish plastic junk on children after a ride in a flying sleigh. He did give gifts to the poor to help them out of terrible situations, including giving poor girls a dowry so they could marry.
But the real meaning of Christmas has never been about any of that. The real meaning of Christmas leads in a straight line to the cross. The peace of Christmas isn't about that mythical stillness at the end of Christmas movies, when for a brief moment, all the frenetic activity comes to an end, and for a moment the Grinch realizes Christmas means just a little bit more, or Ralphie's parents snuggle in for a moment after fighting their way through an hour and a half movie. The real meaning of Christmas is God entering into his creation and assuming human flesh, not as some mighty Apollo or Zeus, but as a tiny, helpless infant. He doesn't come to chase or to rape some human girl, he comes to rescue us from the justice we deserve.
Christ doesn't come as a helpless infant through the womb of a wealthy woman who can provide him with every comfort. He comes as the son of a poor woman. He comes through the womb of a devout and gentle young woman who has been accused of adultery, and as adoptive child to a man who is gentle enough to seek to protect her anyway, and who knowingly takes on the role of adoptive father to him, despite the scorn that will be heaped on him. He comes at a time when the whole known world is in movement, going to register for taxes, and no one in his father's hometown has room for them to sleep. They probably thought the stable was good enough for that slut, Mary, anyway. We are shown the cross in his birth, as the wise men bring gifts of embalming herbs. They don't bring gold and silver. They bring what is needed to bury him. Mary wraps him in grave cloths, because that is all she has.
Christmas leads straight to the cross. That is the peace that is Christmas. Our peace doesn't come from our emotions. Our peace doesn't come from decorations or food. It doesn't come from heaps of cheap plastic under a tree. It doesn't come from Bing Crosby and Patsy Cline warbling on whatever sound system we have this year. The peace of Christmas comes from knowing that God loved us enough to redeem us. He loved us enough to enter into human flesh and suffer all things we suffer. His temptation started with being a cold baby wrapped in grave clothes in a feeding trough. He could have thrown that flesh off and chosen to be warm, or to be in a fine house, or to remake himself into an Apollo, or to chuck it and go back to heaven where he wouldn't feel cold.
Instead, he chose to stay there and be a cold baby in a feeding trough, in the stink of a stable, to be adored by shepherds and wise men, to grow up the son of a carpenter in a small backwater town, to preach and teach, to be baptized into the sins of the world, and to die the death penalty our sins deserved. He suffered every temptation we suffered, and more. Even in first century Israel, few babies were born in animal shelters. He suffered cold and heat, hunger and thirst. He knew what it was to be a young man seeing a pretty girl sashay by. He would have seen the pagan temples, and he probably saw what was going on in them. He knew pain and tiredness, illness and weakness and grief. We never see Joseph in the accounts of Christ's adulthood. Likely, he had buried his human father. He knew what it was to be falsely accused. He had every occasion to indulge in anger, bitterness and hatred. He abstained. He who knew no sin became sin for our sakes.
The peace of Christmas is knowing that. provided our hope and trust is in that little baby in the manger, we don't have to face an angry and all powerful God after we die. He who has the power to cast our souls into hell for eternity, understands our weakness and temptation. He walked that mile too. And then he paid our debt. We don't have to worry. That little baby in the manger paid it all. Not only that, but if your loved one you are mourning had his or her faith and trust in that little baby, your separation is temporary. That is the peace of Christmas.