Christmas can be messy, especially for Christians.We are meant to be beacons, to remind the world that “Jesus is the reason” in the midst of rampant consumerism. At the same time, the secular practices of the holidays are highly attractive. (I’ll be the first to admit that I love lights, glitter, candy canes, and Home Alone.) And while not all Christmas specials talk about the birth of Christ, we can’t ignore that their common themes of generosity and forgiveness are Christian messages. Still, the fact remains that most popular conceptions of Christmas barely scratch the surface when it comes to its theological significance. And every time “Do You Hear What I Hear” or “O Holy Night” comes on the radio in a shopping mall, I wonder whether people are paying attention to the shocking claims that these songs are making – that Jesus is the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.
The history surrounding the origins of the celebration of Christmas is also messy. The most commonly accepted story is that Christmas was the Christian response to the pagan festival for Sol Invictus (Senn 71). However, there is another view that Christmas came from the attempt to calculate the actual birth date of Christ (72). Frank Senn describes this:
“Briefly, this theory holds that Christians in the third century appealed to the Jewish view that the creation of the world occurred at Passover time in the spring, and reasoned that new creation must also occur at that time. Since Passover time was the time in which Christians celebrated the passover of Christ from death to life, they believed that Jesus was conceived on the same date on which he died” (72).
This conception/ death date would be March 25. Nine months later brings us to December 25.
The celebration of Jesus’ birth did not start right from the time that this calculation occurred, however. Early Christians more likely focused their celebrations around the baptism of Jesus. The change occurred toward the end of the fourth century following the defeat of Arianism. It is conceivable that tackling this heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ, precipitated a new focus on the mystery of the Incarnation. So Christmas quite possibly originated from theological concerns rather than worries about countering paganism (73).
If this latter theory is correct, then it might seem slightly ironic. The celebration of the Incarnation was supposed to confirm the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, but the story of Christmas itself is far removed from the glory that we normally associate with divine power. Baby Jesus is laid in a feeding trough because there is no room at the inn, while animals and shepherds look on. This is a story of worst-case scenario. But despite knowing this story so well, we try our best to extricate ourselves from any kind of sloppiness in our own Christmas practices.
The Incarnation works to subvert our seasonal perfectionism. It tells us that stuff matters – that the experience of the world is essential, even when it is filled with dirt and smelly animals. The Incarnation verifies that our bodily state is not “bad,” even though it is imperfect. Christ’s entrance into the world is the story of the almighty and perfect choosing to be involved and interact with mess. So if we want to honor the true meaning of Christmas, why are we so worried about separating ourselves from the world? Is that not the very opposite of what we should do?
To truly embrace the significance of Christ’s birth, it is only fitting to embrace the mess. This means not being so concerned with polarizing the sacred and the secular in a holier-than-thou attempt to “reclaim Christmas.” It means acknowledging our brokenness rather than trying to cover it up with apparent orderliness and piety. It means plodding through family tension and recognizing the humanity in every character who plays a role in our lives. It means refraining from judging those whose vices are different from our own. But most of all it means loving through the mess rather than trying to shun it and letting God transform us, just as He transformed the world by entering into its mess on the first Christmas.
Senn, Frank C. “Times, Occasions, and the Communion of Saints.” The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006. 62-79. Print.
Copyright 2015 Sarah Blake
Image: resistance is futile, anokarina, December 6, 2012, CC.