On the joys of Christmas, the true value of the holiday

On the joys of Christmas, the true value of the holiday

On the joys of Christmas, the true value of the holiday

Dartanyan Edmonds

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, folks.  Christmas is near.  This means that in the coming weeks you can expect Christmas songs, trees, gatherings with family and gift exchanges.  These wonderful traditions inundate us every year with infectious joy.  (If you doubt me, just ask yourself: what Scrooge hates Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”?)  But past the joys and cheer there is something about Christmas in contemporary America that always seems to beat around the bush.  Christians often complain that we forget the “Christ” in Christmas, making the holiday more Christ-haunted than Christocentric in the way that we discuss and celebrate it.

As a Christian myself, I’m inclined to share this complaint.  Christmas in America, for as long as I can remember it, always has the spirit of something vague from the past.  It seems to be a tradition and a tradition alone.  It’s just something that we do.  People of varying faith traditions in America partake in the holiday.  Everyone from the Pentecostal to the agnostic enjoys Christmas festivities.  I have plenty of secular friends and acquaintances who celebrate it, singing about joy and drinking eggnog. But why?

  Here, I don’t intend to moan about America’s secularization or how we celebrate Christmas.  It’s Christmas time, after all!  Instead, I want to explore the “true meaning of Christmas.”  What is Christmas?  Why the joy?  Well, if you ask any educated person, he or she will tell you that it is the day on which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.  But who was Jesus, and why does he matter?  

The identity of Jesus is at the heart of Christianity.  Jesus of Nazareth, as he is portrayed in the Gospels, is a rather strange figure, performing miracles and preaching in paradoxical parables.  At one moment, he tells us things that comfort us.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” he tells us in Matthew’s Gospel.  But he also frightens us, threatening the fires of hell more often and more explicitly than any other figure in the entire New Testament.  If we take the Gospels at their word (and there are good historical reasons for doing so, though I can’t enumerate them in this space), then we know that Jesus presented himself as God walking in the flesh.  He presents himself as the “I AM” in John 8:58, invoking the divine name that God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14.  

This divine name, sacred to Judaism and by extension, Christianity, conveys the most foundational truth about God: that God is as Thomas Aquinas called Him, “ispum esse subsistens:” subsistent being itself.  God is existence itself.  All things that exist derive their existence from Him.  He isn’t simply another being, but Being Itself.  From the Christian viewpoint,  He is also Love Itself.  The first letter of John tells us that “God is love” (I John 4:8).  

This means that Jesus of Nazareth, assuming that he is who says he is, is a very radical figure.  He is God Incarnate, the origin of all existence, existence itself, love itself making a humble dwelling among the rest of humanity.  It’s the unique story that only Christianity tells us.  It tells us that God, contrary to the claims of Deism, acts in real history.  It tells us that God, contrary to Judaism and Islam, became human.  

He cares about humans and their affairs so deeply that He decided to join them and partake in the fullness of their experience.  God, through the person of Jesus, experiences joys and tribulations, tragedy and triumph, love and anger.  He ultimately suffers a brutal and dehumanizing death at the hands of his own people.  But why would God do that?  

He did it because of the human condition.  Look around and you will see a world plagued by violence, horror and the deaths of children, prompting atheists to ask “how can a good God let these things happen?”  These are manifestations of the reality of original sin that Christians are always talking about.  Humanity is sick and in need of a cure. 

The story of Christmas is the narrative that the Divine Doctor sees our need for healing and says, “I will heal your brokenness by joining you and elevating you.”  God sees humanity’s woundedness and enters directly into it, taking on the wounds of sin by suffering at the hands of sinners.  He dies the death that we all inevitably face.  But then he conquers sin and death by rising from the dead.  In doing this, he defies humanity, overcoming sin with its opposite, love, and healing death by the promise of resurrection. 

Yes, I know that it isn’t Easter that we’re celebrating.  But Christmas is the beginning of this narrative about the identity of Jesus and all that he did for humanity.  It is the beginning of the tale of our divinization by a God who was willing to join us and give himself away.  And it is for this reason, that Christmas concretizes the truth about God as love.  To love is to will the good of another as other.  It is to give oneself for another.  It is to constantly give one’s existence as a gift to others.  God, in His infinite existence, decided to give Himself away to us.  He became a gift for us in that little boy born in the manger 2000 years ago.  Christmas joy lies not in eggnog, but in this unique story about this wonderful divine gift.