The Christian Christmas

In The Nick of Time
Want to know a secret? Something really personal? The kind of thing that could actually end up in a tabloid?

Well, here it is.

I love Christmas.

No, really. I love Christmas.

I love seeing trees and buildings aglow with colored lights. I love the smell of fresh-baked gingerbread. I love the red of bows and berries against the deep green of pine and holly. I love the jingling of sleigh bells and the soft sound of carols wafting in the streets.

When I was a kid in Michigan, we began to celebrate Christmas right after Thanksgiving. We would always drive into Midland to see the lights. Midland was the location of Dow Chemical, and in those days the city had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world. They spent a good bit of that wealth putting out one of the best Christmas displays around. To a child’s eyes, it was dazzling.

We always had a real Christmas tree. The night that we decorated the tree was always an event. Each child participated, including the variety of foster children who lived in our home through the years. Dad and Mom would wind the lights around the tree, but each child would hang decorations. When every bough was festooned with a paper chain or a bulb or a string of beads, we would layer everything with cascades of tinsel foil.

As Christmas drew near, brightly wrapped packages would appear under the tree. On Christmas Eve, we would be permitted to unwrap just one present that had our name on it. The effect was to heighten the anticipation for Christmas morning, for we knew that overnight the number of gifts around the tree would multiply mysteriously. We also hung stockings on Christmas Eve—not our own, but Dad’s big hunting socks. Since we children were always up earlier than our parents, ransacking the stockings was the first thing to happen on Christmas morning. Invariably my father’s footwear yielded a trove of candy, fruit, and small gifts.

Over time, a host of other Christmas experiences were added to these family traditions. While I haven’t done some of these things for years, I still have pleasant memories of going caroling and drinking hot chocolate, of pasting together wreaths of construction paper, of watching Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (not to mention Natalie Wood in Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street), and of participating in public-school Christmas programs. And the very words “Christmas dinner” can bring tears of joy to my eyes.

I love Christmas. I love it all, just as I did when I was a little child. Every Christmas arrives as a fresh gift, newly wrapped in the memories of every preceding Christmas. It is my favorite time of year.

In fact, there is only one problem with Christmas as I have just described it. That kind of Christmas has absolutely nothing to do with the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a purely cultural festival that can be celebrated by completely secular people. It is as innocuous as it is fun, but there is nothing particularly Christian about it.

Of course, Christians also celebrate Christmas, but the Christmas that they observe has an entirely different meaning. For Christians, Christmas brings into focus an event that they ponder throughout the year. That event is the incarnation of the Second Person of the Godhead. For Christians, Christmas is precisely the adoration of that person.

In many Christian traditions, Christmas is preceded by Advent. The difference is this: Advent is the season for remembering why Christ had to come into the world. It is a time when Christians recall the sinfulness and hopelessness of lost humanity. It is a sober time of reflection and self-denial. The sensibility of Advent is admirably captured in such lyrics as “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan; Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” and “O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Advent recalls the despair in which we would be trapped without the Savior.

Into the grim reminiscences of Advent, Christmas bursts like an explosion of joy. Christmas is the announcement of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It is the declaration that a Savior has appeared. It is a proclamation of a King born in a manger, of the Mighty God humbling Himself to be made in the likeness of men.

For Christians, Christmas is filled with both joy and mystery. The One who was born is the Son of David, but He is also the Son of the Highest. He is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, and the Prince of Peace. He who is of one substance with the Father, He who was begotten but not made, has added to His eternal deity a complete human nature. The Creator has entered His creation and become one with it, not only in substance, but also in suffering. The Omnipotent One took upon Himself the weakness of a little baby in order that He might learn obedience and demonstrate piety.

These are great and mighty wonders. So imponderable are they that we will never truly fathom them—not even in eternity. We struggle to find words to express these truths, and we are constantly aware of the inadequacies of our understanding. For Christians, Christmas is a season to be reminded of these mysteries, to grope toward some greater degree of comprehension, and, above all, to bend our knees and lift our voices in praise to Jesus our Savior, who is Immanuel, God with us.

As we marvel at the beauty and wonder of the Son of God, the lights and tinsel of the cultural Christmas become alien intrusions. This is not to say that they are bad in themselves or that we should not enjoy them as we experience the world at large. When we gather as Christians, however, our purpose in Christmas is to ponder and celebrate the incarnation of our Lord. At such moments, if we must think of a tree, let it be the one that was lifted up on Calvary. If we must ponder a wreath, let it be the one whose thorns pierced our Savior’s brow. If we must consider a gift, let it be the unspeakable gift of God’s own Son, deity robed in flesh, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, who for us men for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

I still love Christmas. I still love the red and the green, the holly and the ivy, the bows and the bells. But I leave them outside the temple, for they are but profane things, and there is a Christmas that I love even more. Within the holy temple, assembled with the New Humanity as the One Body, I wish to know nothing save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.

God rest ye merry.

A Hymn On the Nativity Of My Saviour from A Sinner’s Sacrifice

Ben Jonson (c. 1573-1637)

I sing the Birth was born to-night,
The Author both of life and light;
The angels so did sound it,
And like the ravished shepherds said,
Who saw the light, and were afraid,
Yet searched, and true they found it.

The Son of God, th’Eternal King,
That did us all salvation bring,
And freed the soul from danger;
He whom the whole world could not take,
The Word, which Heaven and Earth did make,
Was now laid in a manger.

The Father’s wisdom willed it so,
The Son’s obedience knew no No.
Both wills were in one stature,
And as that wisdom had decreed,
The Word was now made Flesh indeed,
And took on Him our nature.

What comfort by Him do we win,
Who made Himself the price of sin
To make us heirs of glory?
To see this Babe all innocence,
A martyr born in our defence:
Can man forget this story?

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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