Critics of the celebration of Christmas (even within the Church) find the desire to note the birthday of Christ somewhat offensive--as if it is an affront to the majesty of God that's wrapped in earthy materialism.
True, we cannot think of Christ's arrival into the world the same way we do humankind because He was and is both God and man.
So, what then, is the reason to gloriously celebrate Christmas...even amid the tinsel and worldly excesses?
God, the Son lived as one of us to legally undo the tyranny of sin that bound the human race to Adam. Since a man chose to live independently from God, only a human could qualify to stand trial and face judgment, but we needed one among us that would not personally give in to sin and selfishness.
During a probationary period between the Fall and Christ's arrival, innocent animals bore the penalty of humanity's sins. Given the earthly name Jesus, God's Son assumed human flesh and stepped into the limits of our time and space. Though fully God AND fully man, He allowed His humanity to be tempted, but He remained sinless--qualifying Him as the innocent sacrifice to bear the sins of all people. The curse was broken!
The Father's holiness and love met at the two beams of the Cross, satisfying justice and mercy simultaneously as the Son amazingly, willingly stood in humanity's stead.
Therefore, I fully understand why the Church was compelled to set a date to call Christians throughout history --in one voice and mind--to honor the manifested Incarnation--"God with us"...a yearly, renewed proclamation of the Good News that the transcendent God of the cosmos is also immanently available to human hearts.
Actually, the Word was made flesh nine months earlier in the womb of a young girl who surrendered to the will of God: "Be it unto me according to your Word..." (Luke 1:38)
Around the time of the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.), the Church began to also mark this magnificent event when the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary. It's called the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th.
However, Jesus was probably born in September; others speculate his birth in the summer months because the shepherds would not be abiding in the fields during winter. Again, getting the EXACT date right is not as important as choosing to set aside a time to ponder the wonders of the Incarnation.
In America, we've moved observances of several historical dates to coincide with weekends, making participation easier for working families. The meanings of these events have not diminished. Why the fuss about the accuracy of December 25th?
Our calendars are full of activities, but I don't mind a reminder in March to stop my busy schedule and examine my heart for a suppleness like that of a young teen who dared to trust God at the risk of being ostracized and even stoned.
I love the idea of ending my year by celebrating what gives me hope for the new one..."Christ in me the hope of glory!" (Colossians 1:27)
The word "Christmas" is really two words put together: Cristes Maesse--the "Mass of Christ". It was not a day, but something you attended on the 25th. That day was known as The Feast of the Nativity.
On this holy day, Christians would attend one of three masses (Communion), professing in a very tangible way to the truth of the Incarnation: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us..." (John 1:14)
Mensa is the Latin word for 'table', and the word Mass denotes a 'sending forth" from the Lord's table to serve the world as the visible Body of Christ. Another closely related word is the Spanish MESA, also meaning "table".
The first Mass was observed at midnight on Christmas Eve. Called "The Angels' Mass", it focused on divinity taking the initiative to reach down to redeem man in an extraordinary act of love. (Other religions focus on man striving to reach God.)
Next, "The Shepherds' Mass" was celebrated at dawn and honored Christ's willingness to subject Himself to human needs and suffering from the womb to the grave in order to fulfill the Father's mission of redemption. His arrival was announced to ordinary men at work whose names we do not know--men of no import to the wealthy or noble.
The final service on the Feast of The Nativity was usually held during the day and was known as "The Mass of the Divine Word". Christians worshiped the eternal God/Man Jesus Christ--fully God and fully man--a faithful, compassionate High Priest who is acquainted with our infirmities AND the King of Kings who reigns forevermore.
Most protestant churches do not schedule Christmas Eve or Day services, preferring to let their congregants celebrate with family and friends. Although historic churches may have multiple masses today, they are often scheduled to accommodate larger crowds rather than present the three-fold revelation of the Incarnation.
Does this mean that Christians who go to church on Christmas are holier than those who don't? No, far from it! Saints and sinners gather alike in a building and go through the motions, but only God knows who is really His; the wheat and the tares are still together for a season.
Again, it's not about how many times you go to church, what church you attend at Christmas or that you even go to church on December 25th! It's about the receptivity of your heart toward the Incarnate Christ and what that reality means to you.
Therefore, what do you know about Christ's Incarnation?
If, after immersing yourself in holiday shopping, decorations, presents, delightful food and family, you still find yourself secretly asking at the end of another Christmas Day, "Is this it?"; and if you have an unexplainable emptiness in spite of the family and material blessings of the season, then I encourage you to go deeper than just knowing it's Jesus' birthday.
Understand what it cost God to come to earth as a man and sacrifice Himself; yet, rejoice in a Love so extravagant that it would spill its blood for the redemption of the whole world--past, present and future.
Jesus was both God's representative to you and your representative before God. As both God and Man, all debts to sin were canceled in the finished work of the Cross, and that which stood in the way of your reconciliation to the Father was removed!
As we approach The Feast of the Nativity, I plan to re-post a series of teachings on The Incarnation of Christ. These truths have changed my life and how I express my faith--not only at Christmas, but year round.
But first, I will share how I celebrate Christmas by returning to many of the earlier traditions and customs of the Church.This article will post in a few days. I pray these insights will also transform you and your Christmases!