Just what is the whole Christmas thing about? What are we celebrating? What does it mean in our secular society?
For most Kiwis, Christmas is about celebrating family togetherness, time off work and the beginning of summer holidays. All of which is fine as far as it goes, though it’s not such great fun for those without families. I know a childless couple who love the outdoors and who celebrate Christmas by taking a picnic lunch into the hills on their own. Seems a rather lonely way to spend Christmas. And, of course, many people are on their own, without anyone.
How can Christmas be good news for secular people in our land? How can we present it as more than just a family celebration and a charming story (with animals, angels and a baby) for the kids?
The issue of loneliness is actually quite central. You see, a key divide between belief and unbelief appears when we answer the question: Are we alone in the universe?
Underlying a secular world view is the belief that we live in an impersonal universe which is indifferent to human happiness. We are simply the freak product of a blind process and are totally on our own in a world without God.
Secularism is based on a world view called “naturalism” – which means the belief that that there is only the natural world of molecules and matter, that there is no “beyond”, no supernatural or divine dimension, no life after this one. No wonder celebration of family becomes the be-all and end-all at Christmas. What else have we got to celebrate?
For the Christian, Christmas is above all about the belief that we are not alone. It is about the conviction that there is a God who is not remote and far away or indifferent to our situation.
It is about the belief that this God has joined with us in our humanity. He stepped into our world – in dateable, relatively recent human history, just a few years after Julius Caesar invaded Britain and several centuries before the Roman Empire fell.
The extraordinary thing is that this God did not step into our world in a highly dramatic way. He did not come as a lordly ambassador from outer space; he didn’t appear with the éclat of the supernatural. He came into our world as we all come – through a human birth canal.
No wonder this is scandalous to devout Muslims who have an acute sense of God’s honour and dignity. No wonder this is risible to academic philosophers who are accustomed to seeking meaning in lofty, abstract concepts. But, in this way, God subverts the religious and the intelligentsia and accommodates himself to ordinary people.
Christmas is glorious because it tells us we are not alone. It also tells us that the God who made us loved us to the extraordinary extent of coming to share our humanity. Quite simply, as John’s Gospel puts it, he “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Or as Matthew puts it, Jesus is “Immanuel, (which means, ‘God with us.’)”
The New Testament writers found themselves in encounter with a man they could not fit into any known categories. He was obviously human: he ate and he drank, he got tired, he needed to sleep, he bled when wounded. But he was like no one else they had ever encountered. His teaching had a resonance and a compelling quality unlike that of any of the religious teachers or philosophers that they knew. His life had such quality and grace that not even his enemies could find fault in him. And he demonstrated the most amazing powers – the ability to heal lepers, cure blindness, give hearing to the deaf, even to raise the dead to life.
They were at a loss to know what to make of him. Yes, they followed him; yes, they came to believe that he was the Messiah. But his death changed all that. No Messiah ends up dead on a Roman cross.
But hang on a minute! He didn’t “end up” there. In the days after his crucifixion, witness after witness turns up with the extraordinary claim that Jesus is alive again. And eventually there are over 500 people who attest to this.
Now, it begins to make sense. Now, they find a category in which to explain the amazing person they have known. He is the God-man, that is, the living God come amongst them in human flesh and blood, God incarnate.
And all his changes everything! We are no longer alone. We are not even under the eye of a remote deity who looks down on us in detachment or condemnation. We have a God who is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” and who so entered our humanity in Jesus that he can empathise with us in all the struggles we go through in life. In Jesus, we meet the God who came, as the Christmas story says, to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
So, in light of the whole story, in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Christmas is infinitely worth celebrating. Christmas is about God’s great initiative in making himself known, God’s great expression of his love, God’s great rescue mission to free us from the power of evil. We give gifts at Christmas because in Jesus we receive the ultimate gift.
This article, by Ron Hay, first appeared in the Dec 2016 edition of Anglican Life magazine (Christchurch)