As a child, Christmas celebrations were synonymous with new clothes, sumptuous meals that included chicken (a rare treat), a protracted Christmas church service (heavily steeped in recognition of wealthy and prominent societal figures who had driven from the city), and fundraising for various church projects that had stalled in the year. With this focus on a variety of material things, the message of Christmas barely featured in the sermon. Often it was only broached briefly by the priest.
Christmas was and still is consumeristic and egocentric. Its message is buried beneath the rubble of temporal gains
Today, little has changed. With many receiving their December salaries in the second week of the month, the city is always overrun with shoppers and commuters. Everyone is shopping for all manner of goods before scrambling to board transport back to their village. Weekends are almost always crammed full with events. Countless comedy shows and parties target our love for revelry. Christmas was, and still is, consumeristic and egocentric. Its message is buried beneath the rubble of temporal gains.
Christmas Is About Our Saviour God
Amidst this frenzied excitement is a missed opportunity to reflect on and share the theology of Christmas. With different families getting together after a long and onerous year, their appetites are whetted for conversation. This means there isn’t a better time to discuss the meaning of this celebration.
Christmas concerns the God who redeems and restores fallen human beings
Far from orbiting around our appetites, Christmas concerns the God who redeems and restores fallen human beings. Christmas day is about the Father who sends his Son to reconcile sinners to himself. Christ’s birth is not just a legend fit for Christmas-pulpit-acting. Rather, Christmas centres on the person and works of Christ Jesus.
Understanding Christ’s Identity
Christmas is no more identified with the birth of Christ than with his identity. Christ’s question to the apostles “who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29) is foundational to the Christmas story. To the apostle Peter, Christ is the “Messiah” (Mark 8:29), meaning ‘anointed one’. Christ is his title, and Jesus, which means ‘God saves’ is his name. Therefore, Christ Jesus is the anointed one and the Lord God who saves.
Christmas day is about the Father who sends his Son to reconcile sinners to himself
To the apostle John, Jesus is “the word” who was “in the beginning with God and was God” (John 1:1-3). St Basil wrote, “there is nothing ‘before’ this absolute beginning: there is only the timeless present of eternity.” That is, the word is the beginning of the beginning of all things. The word has always been with the Father and there’s no point in time when they have not been that way. In 1 John 1:1-2, Jesus is called “the word of life” and “eternal life.”
This word, who is “eternal life” became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ. He was born in the likeness of men and did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (John 1:14; Philippians 2:6-8). The apostle Paul refers to Jesus as ‘the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Timothy 2:5). Christ Jesus is the only begotten Son, who was then begotten of Mary as human (John 1:14, 18; Luke 2:1-7).
At Christmas God Took On Flesh
The apostle John insisted that the eternal word became a man. He writes, “we have heard, we have seen with our eyes and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1). In Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller writes, “Christmas is the one Christian holiday the world seems to embrace, yet its message is the most incomprehensible to that world.”
God donning flesh is not easy to grasp or comprehend. It is a mystery. But “with man this is impossible but with God all things are possible,” and “the mystery which is Christ in us the hope of Glory has now been revealed” (Matthew 19:26; Colossians 1:26-27; Galatians 3:23).
At Christmas we celebrate a gift far more precious than all the things money can buy
Fully God, Fully Human
Understanding the significance of Christ’s divinity and humanity has its share of difficulties. It is a profound mystery. Yet believers should endeavour to truly comprehend Christmas. How could Christ represent us before God if he had not been truly God? How could he represent man if he had not been truly man? For the word to be Emmanuel (literally “God with us”), he had to be nursed by Mary. For him to save human beings, he had to be God (Isaiah 7:14; Colossians 1:15).
As St Athanasius writes, in his rightly famous On the Incarnation, “The Saviour has not worn a body as a consequence of nature, but that being by nature bodiless and existing as the Word, by the love for humankind and goodness of his own Father he appeared to us in a human body for our salvation.”
Christmas is about the Saviour appearing in bodily form for love’s sake to save humanity
In other words, Christmas is about the Saviour appearing in bodily form for love’s sake to save humanity from its sin that led them wandering away from God. Only the word, Jesus Christ, could bridge the chasm between man and himself since man is spiritually dead. As the New City Catechism (Q20) reads, “The only Redeemer is the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, in whom God became man and bore the penalty for sin himself.”
The Son Who Was Born To Die
Christmas happened because we are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-3). Sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2; Romans 3:23). Paul writes, “he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). The eternal Word of life did not become flesh to make people live better lives but to make dead people live. The theology of Christmas says humanity could not rescue itself from sin and God’s wrath. The Christmas story teaches that we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone.
The eternal Word of life did not become flesh to make people live better lives but to make dead people live
How can we celebrate Christmas meaningfully? By remembering the significance and purpose of Jesus Christ’s birth in a manger. God became flesh so that he could bear our sin on the cross and in turn give us the free gift of eternal life. We did not earn this. It’s ours because God loves us (1 John 4:9-10). The birth of Jesus marks the dawn of freedom. He rescues us from slavery to sin and makes us servants of a loving Saviour with whom we obtain righteousness. Therefore, we make merry and rejoice at Christmas because by the birth of Jesus we have been made sons of God (Galatians 3:23-4:7).
When our minds are centred on Christ’s person and work at Christmas, then our attitude and celebrations will be aligned to its true message. In turn, our hunger for the material will fade out as our appreciation of Christ’s love fills our hearts and guides our actions.
Our hunger for the material will fade out as our appreciation of Christ’s love fills our hearts
Christmas is not about the myriad things we can buy. Nor is it primarily about the friends and relatives we finally get to see. It is about the hope that eclipsed despair that first Christmas night.
With the pandemic having robbed us of many of our favourite distractions, may we be reminded of the pure delight in knowing that Jesus Christ saves. For his birth in a manger marked the dawn of humanity’s journey to salvation. His death spells eternal life. At Christmas we celebrate a gift far more precious than all the things money can buy.