Christmas is coming. In a sense, Christmas is always coming. There is always another December 25 ahead, at least until Jesus returns and calls an end to time.
Christmas is December 25 in our tradition. It is just one day, for us. Some churches once marked the day differently on their calendar, often choosing January 6, Epiphany, as their Christmas.
Christmas is first a celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord. Jesus did not become true man on that day, He became true man at the conception of Jesus, which we mark with the Annunciation on March 25, nine months earlier. Nevertheless, Christmas is the celebration of God taking human flesh and human nature for our salvation.
Most people don't know that and many do not mean to celebrate it, but the Incarnation is a big deal. Philosophers have said it is impossible. Many religionists who call themselves Christians also say that it is not possible. Calvin, the father of most of Protestantism, is known for the saying, "The finite is not capable of the infinite." He would argue that it could not do or carry or hold or ... well, anything ... with the infinite because the infinite is . . . infinite . . . and finite has limits. Talk about telling God what he can and cannot do!
But I grant his point. It is impossible - to human reason. God did it anyhow. He planned it, and He willed it, and He did it. That is the thing about omnipotence. Once you are all powerful and can do anything, even the impossible, can be done. When you are capable of doing Trinity, the impossible is less impossible.
When we talk about God, we use words that are fine for describing men, but cannot be quite adequate to talk about God. Impossible, for example, is an absolute. It has no degrees. A deed or a thing cannot be more impossible or less impossible. Either it can be done, or it cannot be done. Except when we are talking about what God can do.
George Carlin had a line in one of his routines about asking the priest if God could create a stone so big and so heavy that He could not lift it. The theologically correct answer is, "Yes, and then He would lift it." The category of "impossible" does not apply with God.
The Incarnation is not possible except that God did it. Only God would be able to figure it out and make it work. Thank God He did! We needed the Incarnation. Nothing less than divine holiness standing in our place, responsible to the law and to God could have earned eternal life. No one else could trade places with all of humanity and shoulder the burden of sin and guilt and pay the price of the justice of God in exchange for us but God Himself. Only the Incarnate One could take the place as an adequate substitute for the billions of men and women who have lived in sin and earned death and hell. He could only do it with perfect righteousness and perfect obedience.
The angels of Christmas sang about the incarnation, "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord." The Savior born that day was the Chosen One (Christ, the Anointed One - and anointing was the ancient method of revealing a choice) who is God. "The Lord" was way the Jews would have said "God" avoiding the name of God and using His title, "Lord" instead. God was born! It is no wonder that the angels sang that night. They couldn't help themselves.
Christmas is the start of the story, sort of. First, it is hard to find the start of a story that begins before the foundation of the world in eternity. Then you could start the clock ticking with any number of Old Testament events, beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden when they had eaten the forbidden fruit, and God spoke the words of Genesis 3:15 to them. The call of Abraham or the covenant with Abraham, or Moses, or David or any number of people in the Bible could be marked as the start, more or less.
But the birth in Bethlehem was the first visible moment for the world. It started for Elizabeth and Zacharias fifteen months earlier. It started for Mary when Gabriel stopped by. A good starting place would be when Caesar Augustus decreed the census - or tax in the King James Version - because the account of Luke uses a prophetically weighted phrase, "In those days." The prophets were always prophesying about the coming Messiah and the coming Day of the Lord with words like, "In those days." When God inspired Luke to begin this part of the narrative with those words, He was drawing a direct connection between the prophesies concerning "those days" or "that day" and the events about to be described.
Still, the manger, the star, the magi, the shepherds and the angels all draw attention to this single event in which God began to roll out the plan of salvation in time right before the face of all people. Of course, not everybody could see what was happening. The Wise Men did. Simeon and Anna in the Temple both did. But Herod had a blind spot there, just as most of the world today seems to be unwilling and unable to see what Christmas is.
It is not entirely their fault. They have a congenital condition which blinds them to God and to the truths of God, just like every other descendent of Adam and Eve, unless the Holy Spirit gives you sight and opens your eyes and teaches you to believe. Everyone in and of the world tends to prefer the pale copy of Christmas, the secular one with all the pretty lights and silly songs about reindeer and jingle bells and what not. It is disguised as feel-good stuff, except most people complain about the constant drumming of the happy-happy-happy in music and cheesy, television shows one after the other. Besides, the secular Christmas is getting as famous as the holiday that depresses and disappoints as it is the holiday of good cheer.
Christmas is the holiday of family. It is the holiday which shows us the Holy Family. We see very little of Jesus' family in the Scriptures. There is the birth narratives, the Visit of the Magi, the visit to the Temple where Mary and Joseph encounter Simeon and Anna, and the journey to Jerusalem when Jesus is about twelve years old, so Christmas is a good candidate for the holiday of Family.
Celebrations of Christmas have focused on family and gathering together for centuries, although Thanksgiving is currently the number one travel holiday in America. Christmas is best celebrated with family and loved ones gathering around one another to cheer and encourage one another and remind each other of the true significance of the day.
Unlike other holidays, Christmas is the holiday of the Gift. Of course, gifts can be given anytime, but Christmas seems to uniquely elicit gift-giving. It is possible that our giving gifts on Christmas echoes the giving of the greatest fit, the very Son of God for us and for our sins. The tradition of giving gifts at this time of year is so well-rooted our society that some Christmas celebrations made the exchange of gifts mandatory.
Other gift traditions have arisen, with no connection to the religious aspect of the holiday, such as re-gifting. Many families have a traditional gift to be re-gifted, such as a fruitcake that no one eats, they simply re-wrap it and give it to another person in the family. There is the tradition of the moleskin pants of Larry Kunkle and Roy Collette that ran from 1964 to 1989, with these two brothers-in-law re-gifting the same pair of slacks, wrapped more creatively each time, until an accident in packaging process reduced the slacks to ashes. They now reside in an urn on the mantle of Larry Kunkle.
The greatest Christmas gift is the gift of love in the person of Jesus Christ, the Babe born in Bethlehem. God gave that gift because our Savior needed to be born responsible to the Law as all human beings are. He had to be "under the law," as Galatians 4:4 said so that He would be accountable to keep the law as we are, in order that His righteous obedience would earn the promise of the Law as our had earned the threat and curse of the Law. The promise: do this and live. The threat of the law: the soul that sins shall die.
By His righteousness, we have been saved because He exchanged His life, earned by obedience for the death which the sins of each and every one of us has earned and deserved. He nailed our sins on the cross and died there for them, pouring out grace and forgiveness and life everlasting upon all that believe and trust in His promise. The evidence that the exchange worked is His resurrection of Easter. We celebrate all of that gift with Christmas.
Christmas is a supremely religious holiday. The world around us has a secular holiday, and they use the same word for it, but it is not Christmas as we know it. Our holiday is not about parties and eating and drinking and the merry, mindless music of the world around us, and we dare not allow ourselves to be confused on that point. Some who call themselves Christians are confused about it, but the celebration of the birth of the Savior and the Incarnation of God is not about Santa and reindeer and candy canes. There is nothing wrong with candy canes, but buying into the favorite pagan myths of the season will only distract our hearts and minds from the wonder of what is truly wonderful.
God kept His promises. The prophecies of long ages were fulfilled in Him. When Simeon saw the baby Jesus, he could tell God he was ready to die because his eyes had seen the salvation which God had worked before all people. Just the birth of that infant spoke of the faithfulness of God and the certainty of His salvation just as He had spoken through long ages. Simeon needed nothing more, and neither do we, although we have so much more.
We have the whole story laid out for us in Scripture. We have the life and the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled. We have the death so faithful to all that was prophesied. We have the resurrection faithfully recorded with supporting testimonies inside the Scriptures and outside, that tell us that it all really happened, and what it all means.
Now, the celebration of Christmas is a human arrangement. It is not commanded in the Scriptures. There is no law that we should or must have this annual celebration. The purpose of the holiday is devotional. We celebrate it each year to keep it fresh in our minds, and to have an opportunity to pause and marvel at the marvelous and wonder at the wonderful and consider how great the love of God is for us, that He would go to such lengths to rescue and redeems us.
We can use the annual feast to refocus, just as we need the weekly services to keep the grace of God clear in our minds. There is nothing natural about the faith which God has worked in us by His Holy Spirit at work through His Word and the Sacraments. Our sinful nature wants to chuck it off and follow sin. That is why we hear so often about those who present themselves as Christian teachers denying and doubting the reality of this fact or that, and trying to make it all so much more "reasonable" for us.
God is not easy to understand. His grace is not something we can choose or reach out for, or even open ourselves to. Like Christmas itself, faith is a violent intrusion by the Holy Spirit into our sinful world and against our nature. Like angels singing in the sky for shepherds, it is not something we can make happen. His grace is the gift of God to all that believe. That is why the pagan Christmas imitations are so dangerous. They fit us. They are fun. They are just naturally pleasing. But they lie about the day and its meaning and the source of our true joy, and try to confuse us. We have to endure them with good grace, humanly speaking, but we need to keep the real Christmas clear in our minds and right before our eyes. God did this. He made all this happen, and He forced His way into our hearts. Thank God!
Christmas is Christ.
Yours in the Lord,
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