The True Meaning of Christmas

ImageI am so tired of hearing about the true meaning of Christmas.

These somber homilies that always begin the same way: “he was brought into this world as a babe.” “God became a tiny baby in a stinking manger.” Something about Emmanuel. Something about God being us. Something, something, something. They’ve worn me out.

I’ve heard them all my life now: pulpit reminders of the Christmas miracle. Pastors shackled to the weighty annual burden of reminding their congregations of the extent of the mystery. The incarnation. And these seasonal injunctions have somehow become unbearable. I find myself annoyed. Like how I feel when a parent forgets they’ve told this joke before. I feel the urge to stand up in the middle of church and scream “I know! I know the whole thing!” Mary (how obedient! How wise beyond her years!”) Joseph (“How trusting!”) The innkeeper. The shepherds. The star. The Magi. The little town. The baby God. I have searched for some unexplored nuance to the tale. A fresh angle that would stun me into quiet contemplation.

I’ve got nothing.

I’m certainly not alone, and I feel the pastor’s plight. What else can one do but retell the story, in earnest tones, begging people to understand. You can pound your pulpit, sing it from the stage, or dress it up with Advent candles, but it amounts to the same bleeding heart message: “for you! God became man for you!” And most ears, like mine, sighing in response. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

I wonder if Mary and Joseph felt rather similar. We imagine them awash in pathos, but let us give them the grace to be human. Mary, who for all her chosen-ness was still just a very young girl, birthed a child. All Joseph had been able to supply to the entire event was an ill-timed trip to his hometown where he’d clearly neglected to make arrangements. It seems likely they’d expected the Messiah’s birth to be met with some sort of supernatural fanfare. Fiery horses or something. “That’d be just like God,” Joseph probably thought, seeing his new family in such dire straits,”to come through at the last moment with an army of archangels to deliver us all out of the cold.”

But, no. Mary pushed out a baby, and that was, essentially, that. They heard about some heavenly choirs secondhand, which surely seemed a bit unfair. The shepherds left, and that was the end of it. They sat in their stable all night, just the three of them.

“So,” Mary thinks. “That’s it?”

“So,” I think now, in my pew, hearing the story again. “That’s it?”

And God? How does He feel now, if God feels at all? His swift and terrible love, thundering from Heaven in bone-knocking waves, charging every dot and tittle of reality with glory. God, who built all this, set us down in it, and set about finding ways to show us that He loved us. He built a universe, and then dove in after us when we started to drown. He beat His son to death. He comes again to judge the quick and the dead. “Good tidings of great joy which will be for all people!” He bellows.

And I yawn, like a teacher having to pretend to admire a child’s drawing. “Yes, God. Very nice.”

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2 Comments

  1. Well written, as always. I really like the way you’ve settled into a style that seems so natural. It’s definitely your voice.

    That said, it’s an interesting take on the whole shebang. I definitely sympathise with you on a lot of it. I often get annoyed at how some Christians look down on you if you simply try to enjoy the modern Christmas traditions. Yes, I know it’s all about Jesus, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for me to drink egg nog and enjoy A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s like certain people are out to kill whimsy; leaving it bleeding, red and green, in a dark alley somewhere in the name of Christ.

    While I haven’t been a Christian nearly as long as you have, I hear you about the repetition getting tiring. However, the one aspect of the whole thing that has fascinated me for a while is the genealogy. Not in that the people listed are so varied and fascinating in regards to who was part of Christ’s lineage and blah blah blah. But rather, that we call it Christ’s lineage at all! I mean, who gives a crap if Joseph was from the line of David? It’s not like he fathered Christ.

    Also, we see two different versions of Joseph’s lineage in the gospels. The first is in Matthew 1 and the other is in Luke 3. They just don’t match, which really bothered me when I first noticed it. After doing a bit of research though, it appears that Luke 3 is actually an account of Mary’s lineage as the phrase, “Joseph, the son of Heli” should actually be rendered as, “Joseph, the son [in law] of Heli”. Initially, this assuaged my concerns until I remembered that, in the OT & NT, Jewishness was derived from the father. As far as I’m aware, tracing Jewishness through the mother didn’t begin until much later.

    So, again, why the crap does it matter if we see Mary and Joseph’s lineage if they weren’t important for Jesus to have status as someone from the line of David? The answer I’ve found is simple but really beautiful. Adoption. The Jewish practice of adoption was so intense and all encompassing that an adopted child was viewed in exactly the same way as a child born of your own flesh and blood.

    In my opinion, this is in stark contrast to our world’s view of adoption today. Even in regards to the laws of the “civilised” western world, it’s iffy whether a country will acknowledge adoption as fully legally binding. For instance, if my wife Rachel and I ever move to America and have a child there, our child will automatically be granted UK citizenship (as Rachel holds British citizenship). However, if we move to America and adopt a child, our adopted child might not receive the same treatment. In fact, from what I’ve read and been told, citizenship to children adopted abroad is rarely granted.

    Not to mention peoples’ attitudes and judgements about adoption. From what I’ve heard and read, it’s a fairly common occurrence for adopted children to be made fun of or harassed, by children and sometimes adults, because they’ve been adopted. A lot of people think adoption is a great thing, myself included, but we don’t necessarily have the right attitude about it. For example, when I think about adopting, I often follow up the internal dialogue with, “I mean, of course I want to have some kids of my own as well.” I don’t think I’m a terrible person for thinking that, but I do recognise the disparity between our attitude towards adoption now and the general view towards adoption back then.

    Which is sad, when you think about it, because adoption is such an amazing act. It’s very much in line with the gospel in that it’s all about parental/familial love being poured out onto a child by people who are in no way obligated or expected to do so toward that child. It’s amazing to see that Jesus went through that as well, to think that Joseph didn’t actually need to love Jesus, but he did. We often think of the Christmas story in stereotypes, as you’ve said. Whether it’s overglorifying the snot-nosed, crapping, puke-machine baby Jesus or turning his parents into angelic saints unfazed by any of the hardships, it’s just wrong. The truth is, it must have sucked pretty hard for everyone involved, and yet they held together as a family. I do find that beautiful, even if what comes out of the pastor’s mouth is more of the same old blah blah blah that it’s easy to get tired of.

    But, that’s just me.

    Reply
  2. Well written, as always. I really like the way you’ve settled into a style that seems so natural. It’s definitely your voice.

    That said, it’s an interesting take on the whole shebang. I definitely sympathise with you on a lot of it. I often get annoyed at how some Christians look down on you if you simply try to enjoy the modern Christmas traditions. Yes, I know it’s all about Jesus, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for me to drink egg nog and enjoy A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s like certain people are out to kill whimsy; leaving it bleeding, red and green, in a dark alley somewhere in the name of Christ.

    While I haven’t been a Christian nearly as long as you have, I hear you about the repetition getting tiring. However, the one aspect of the whole thing that has fascinated me for a while is the genealogy. Not in that the people listed are so varied and fascinating in regards to who was part of Christ’s lineage and blah blah blah. But rather, that we call it Christ’s lineage at all! I mean, who gives a crap if Joseph was from the line of David? It’s not like he fathered Christ.

    Also, we see two different versions of Joseph’s lineage in the gospels. The first is in Matthew 1 and the other is in Luke 3. They just don’t match, which really bothered me when I first noticed it. After doing a bit of research though, it appears that Luke 3 is actually an account of Mary’s lineage as the phrase, “Joseph, the son of Heli” should actually be rendered as, “Joseph, the son [in law] of Heli”. Initially, this assuaged my concerns until I remembered that, in the OT & NT, Jewishness was derived from the father. As far as I’m aware, tracing Jewishness through the mother didn’t begin until much later.

    So, again, why the crap does it matter if we see Mary and Joseph’s lineage if they weren’t important for Jesus to have status as someone from the line of David? The answer I’ve found is simple but really beautiful. Adoption. The Jewish practice of adoption was so intense and all encompassing that an adopted child was viewed in exactly the same way as a child born of your own flesh and blood.

    In my opinion, this is in stark contrast to our world’s view of adoption today. Even in regards to the laws of the “civilised” western world, it’s iffy whether a country will acknowledge adoption as fully legally binding. For instance, if my wife Rachel and I ever move to America and have a child there, our child will automatically be granted UK citizenship (as Rachel holds British citizenship). However, if we move to America and adopt a child, our adopted child might not receive the same treatment. In fact, from what I’ve read and been told, citizenship to children adopted abroad is rarely granted.

    Not to mention peoples’ attitudes and judgements about adoption. From what I’ve heard and read, it’s a fairly common occurrence for adopted children to be made fun of or harassed, by children and sometimes adults, because they’ve been adopted. A lot of people think adoption is a great thing, myself included, but we don’t necessarily have the right attitude about it. For example, when I think about adopting, I often follow up the internal dialogue with, “I mean, of course I want to have some kids of my own as well.” I don’t think I’m a terrible person for thinking that, but I do recognise the disparity between our attitude towards adoption now and the general view towards adoption back then.

    Which is sad, when you think about it, because adoption is such an amazing act. It’s very much in line with the gospel in that it’s all about parental/familial love being poured out onto a child by people who are in no way obligated or expected to do so toward that child. It’s amazing to see that Jesus went through that as well, to think that Joseph didn’t actually need to love Jesus, but he did. We often think of the Christmas story in stereotypes, as you’ve said. Whether it’s overglorifying the snot-nosed, crapping, puke-machine baby Jesus or turning his parents into angelic saints unfazed by any of the hardships, it’s just wrong. The truth is, it must have sucked pretty hard for everyone involved, and yet they held together as a family. I do find that beautiful, even if what comes out of the pastor’s mouth is more of the same old blah blah blah that it’s easy to get tired of.

    But, that’s just me.

    PS: Please excuse any British spellings. I’ve been over here for close to two years and it’s changed the way I type. Also, I’m sick so this was fuelled by cough syrup and fever-confusion, as the best comments always are.

    Reply

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