When I was a child, Christmas always made sense to me. It was about the lights and the tree and the gifts under the tree. Even at church there were lights and a tree - and I got to stand in front of the whole congregation with a microphone and speak! I learned the verses and recited them. I learned the Christmas hymns and carols, and sang them. I learned to name all of the pieces in the manger display, even though almost all of them were legend rather than history, and the scene we all love to set up on our mantles, tables, and front lawns probably never happened in anything like the way we see it today. No matter, it was all about the candy and the gifts, and the big dinner with Grandma and Grandpa (actually with two sets of Grandma's and Grandpa's until I was 15).
Before I go any farther, the "legend" part of the crèche (manger display) is the picture we create in our minds, and with the little statues. The stable was probably a cave, or so the early church thought, rather than the crude barn-thing we seem to favor. The manger was a hay-rack, not a cute near-crib as in our crèches. The animals did not gather around in worship, as suggested by the children's song, "I, said the donkey, all shaggy and brown, . . .". The "Three Kings" or "Magi" or "Wise Men" were astrologers and scholars, not kings, "Magi" means something more akin to "magician" than "wise man", and the number of Magi is a tradition based on the number of gifts named in the Gospel account, not on the number of men who came a-calling. And, the wise men may not have shown up at the manger, but sometime within the first year or two of the life of the baby Jesus, and while His family were living in a house in Bethlehem, according to Matthew's account. So, the family crèche is a 'legend' that we find traditional and nostalgic and appealing.
Back to my original point: When I grew up a little, I understood that the gifts and candy were not really the point of the holiday, however pleasant. The baby Jesus was. I understood that the gifts were symbolic of the great gift which God had given to us in His Son. The candy was, well, just a celebration thing. The family meal was a throw-back to the days when families all lived in the same neighborhood, if not in the same house. It was something we did because we could, not because it was connected to the holiday, or the Holy Family. I invested the entire holiday with new meanings - until some history prof explained the celebration of Christmas as the Church's attempt to keep people away from the Saturnalia, a Roman holiday that fell on December 25th to celebrate the return of the sun - the lengthening of the days (since the Winter Solstice - the shortest day of the year - fell on December 21st or 22nd). The pagan celebration was pretty much like our traditional Christmas - minus the crèche and the church services. They ate, and drank, and partied, and gave each other gifts, and sang songs of the season and talked about the coming of the sun (not the Son) and the return of life to the world.
So, I came to realize that my meanings for all the Christmas customs were a well-intended and well-rehearsed 'baptizing' of a pagan holiday - originally done to keep the youth from public debauchery and pagan religious celebrations. You know, "Let's have our own holiday so the kids (and some of the grow-ups) stay home from the pagan celebrations". The Jews in America did something like that with Hanukkah to keep their kids from getting caught up in Christmas. From that time on, I began to wonder why we have a Christmas celebration at all. I have no problem with it, I just could not honestly apply the old meanings to the holiday, and that troubled me.
Luther wrote somewhere something to the effect that Christmas (and several other holidays) were kept by tradition, and were not a necessary part of the life of the Church. He observed the traditional holidays because he liked them, and if he had tried to stop it, the people in the pews would have been mighty unhappy. Traditions and celebrations were all that most of the people had, since the could not read, and the holiday customs and observances (even the crèche) taught them the stories of their faith.
I still pondered the meaning of the holiday. I like the holiday, and I don't want to do away with it -- it was just an intellectual curiosity. What is Christmas all about? It isn't about the gifts and candy, and it's not about the crèche.
I began to look at the meaning of Christmas. Christmas means absolutely nothing without Good Friday and Easter. We celebrate Christmas precisely because Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and then rose from His grave, just as He prophesied, on the third day. Christmas is the start of the work of Christ in the flesh - and that is when it hit me! Christmas is the Festival of the Incarnation.
There are several things about which we can rejoice at Christmas, but the chief thing is that God became flesh - He took on human nature and human flesh in His Son, and humbled Himself to be conceived and then, after nine months, to be born fully human. We have heard this so often that the wonder of it might escape us. God became a human being, this man, Jesus ben Joseph, of Nazareth. We know that His true Father according to the flesh was God the Father, but the rest of the world knew Jesus as the son of Joseph and Mary. God chose to participate fully in what it is to be one of us, human. He caused the fulness of the Godhead - the divine nature to dwell in the flesh of this fully human person. He united with the human nature and flesh and blood inseparably for all eternity.
The magnitude of the miracle is not evident until you consider that many teachers of the church, who call themselves Christian, cannot wrap their minds around the concept. Early on in the Church, heresies arose about the nature of Jesus Christ. Rather than name the false teachers, I will call them "they" and just quickly review some of their thoughts - in a less technical language than ordinary theological language. They said He was half-and-half, body of a man, spirit of God. They said He was a mixture, something of a demi-god - you know, not quite God and yet much better than a man. They said He was another deity, equal and like the Father. They said He was a junior grade god. They said that God wore masks - and when Jesus was around God was pretending to be a man. They said that He just "seemed" to be human - an illusion by divine power. They said He was merely a man who was adopted by God to be His Son. They said that Jesus was possessed by God, something like the "Omen", only good. And, of course, they said he was just a man, a prophet perhaps, but only human.
The people who taught these things called themselves Christians. I have only highlighted the main errors, not every twist and turn in each error. Sometimes there were three or four distinct positions within in error that competed against one another. Just dealing with the divine nature of Christ there were three main positions - that Jesus was of the same essence as God the Father, that Jesus was of a similar essence as the Father, and that Jesus was of a different essence - a different sort of god - from the Father. Then people debated whether Jesus had two natures dwelling in Him separate and distinct, or one nature - either human or divine, or one nature composed of both (the mixture above), or two nature united, indivisible, and distinct, and yet in one person (what we believe).
The point is that the incarnation is so amazing a truth that even those who wanted to be counted as Christians often could not accept the truth. Today's "Christian" scholars are no exception. Of course, there are many who just refuse to believe that Jesus is God, but many who will say that much cannot believe that God is entirely in Jesus, and that without - meaning outside of - Jesus, you cannot have God at all. The Scripture says, however, that "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself." Jesus said, "All men should honor (worship) the Son, even as they honor the Father. He that does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him." He said, "I and the Father are one." He told Philip, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father." The Earliest Christian confession, "Jesus is Lord," literally means that Jesus is the covenant God of ancient Israel - whether you call Him Jehovah, or Jahweh, or LORD, or whatever.
In the face of all of this, it is still taught in some churches today that the human nature of Jesus could not contain the "fulness" of the true God - the finite is simply not capable of the infinite. When they teach that, they do not realize that they are talking backwards. The question is not what the human nature was capable of, but what is God capable of? Some "Christians" believe that Jesus' body is stored up in heaven, and Jesus is only with us in a "spiritual" presence. They tend to be the same people who refuse to take Jesus at His Word when He says that the bread of the Holy Supper is His body and the wine of the Holy Supper is His blood. The Incarnation is so radical and so big and so important that the human mind boggles at it, even when God tells them it is true Himself!
What the Incarnation teaches us is the nearness of God, and how fully He understands us and our lives and our challenges, and how good this world is, basically. I don't mean the world is good in the sense of Man and his sin, I mean that it is not evil or shameful or less to be desired than something "spiritual". God created it for us, and called it "good". The material world is not of inferior materials or workmanship. It is God-given and delightful - at least in so far as we don't mess it up with our sin and evil.
Because the physical world is good, God could use it, and take part in it, making it part of the holy. God has chosen the physical 'stuff' of this world to deal with us. He sanctifies life in the body by taking part in it, and He uses everyday ordinary things to deal with us, to speak to us, and to refresh us - - such as bread and wine, water for baptism, a sinful and failing human like me to speak out His Word of forgiveness and life and comfort. Really "spiritual" people throughout the ages have tried to say that physical reality like bodies and clothes and food and such are ba-a-a-ad! Gnostics taught that the physical world was an evil trap, created by an evil deity, and that true goodness was 'spiritual'. The monastic asceticism of fasting and poverty and self-punishing behaviors (such as Luther practiced when he was a monk) tends to view the physical as evil and the 'spiritual' as good. The Amish and Mennonite rejection of colors and modern conveniences disparages the physical world. Christian Science, which maintains that there is no real physical reality, but "all is mind", supports that ancient and false dualism - the physical is bad (or not real) and the 'spiritual' or the mental is good.
God teaches us that the world we live in is good, and acceptable and usable by His people. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4, "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer." The Incarnation of Jesus tells us that in the most undeniable way - God took part in the world in which we live. He redeemed us and demonstrated that the very real world we live in is fit for us to live in, and for God to use for our benefit and blessing. Food is good, Jesus ate it. Drink, even alcoholic beverage, is good, Jesus made wine. We simply don't want to abuse it. Clothing is good, Jesus wore it.
And we don't need to search out the 'spiritual' and extraordinary experiences to be really religious. Humble people, assembled in a humble place, hearing the Word of God is how God speaks to us. He feeds us with everyday, common, ordinary bread and wine, giving us His true body and blood in, with, and under the elements - using the ordinary stuff of this world for extraordinary blessing of forgiveness and strength and healing, preparing our bodies for the resurrection, and our souls to live with Him. He takes plain old water, and speaks His Word over it and creates new life in us through its use - linking us to His own death and resurrection by that simple, physical tool, used in connection with His Word and command.
Christmas is our celebration of the Incarnation. It is the Festival of the Incarnation. It teaches us wonderful things, and points us toward living out our love for Him by living with thanksgiving in this world where He has placed us. Have a merry and blessed Christmas, and remember the wonder of the Incarnation, because that's what Christmas is about! Its not (merely) about the crèche.
Yours in the Lord,
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