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Is Christmas About What God Did or Who God Is?

Christmas is about a lot of things.
For children, it’s about the magic and excitement of anticipated gifts. For many, it’s about family time and the joy of celebrating a shared history.

For some, it’s about memories of Christmas no longer celebrated as it once was due to the loss of companions and other loved ones.

For church leaders, it’s about an often pressured schedule of programs and services that express the meaning of the season.

For those in business, it can be about economic survival, as the rush of reciprocated generosity leads to consumer output.

Underneath all these good things that Christmas is about, at the most basic theological level Christmas is about incarnation – what the fourth gospel describes as the Word (Logos – universal, ultimate reality) becoming flesh and living among us.

Amid all the complaints about how “political correctness” and other secular pressures have taken Christ out of Christmas (complaints that usually do a pretty good job of that themselves), it is still hard to miss who the “reason for the season” is.

Even those whose religious traditions are different still seem to celebrate the season and respect its origin.

Recent reflection on the way Christmas’ meaning tends to evolve for us over time has led me to wonder if it might evolve theologically.

Can the meaning of incarnation itself take on new levels of understanding as we live in response to its invitation to “go to Bethlehem and see”?

The traditional expression most familiar to me understands Christmas as an act of God’s love and mercy that changes the course of our spiritual journey, indeed the course of history itself.

A birth event. A very special birth event. The beginning of a life that reconciles humanity to God through a sacrificial death.

We naturally do not separate Christmas from the rest of the story. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David …” joins “For God so loved the world that he gave …” to underscore the significance of what God did.

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself ….” This birth is an essential part of an act that reconciles the world to the God of creation, covenant and eternal life.

Without diminishing the power of this story and its understanding to mediate the saving and reconciling grace of God over time and space, there has been a question tugging at the coat sleeve of my mind: Is what we have in Christmas (and the rest of the story of which it is a part) less an act that changes reality and more a disclosure of what reality always is?

This question may seem to rest on an artificial, strained or irrelevant distinction, since Christmas clearly marks the birth of the significant center of Christian faith. How can we not see it as something God does to redeem humankind?

For me, the difference lies in how we think theologically about it. Do we focus on the event itself, as the “thing” that God has done to save us?

Or do we push our focus beyond the event (as we are encouraged to do with the miracles/”signs” of Jesus) to see what the event is pointing to?

When we look at Christmas as the beginning of an act that God did to satisfy a divine need for a way to reconcile a sinful humanity (understood in terms of prevailing imagery of the Jewish sacrificial system), Christmas becomes a part of that theological narrative, as the birth of the one who came to die for our sins.

If, on the other hand, we think of Christmas as the beginning of a life that discloses to us the very nature of who God is, it becomes an awakening (and annual re-awakening) of an awareness of the extent to which the sacrificial love of God goes to embrace and redeem God’s creation.

The “one who comes” (Adventus) is none other than the one who has promised to be “with us” (Immanuel) all along.

Looked at in this way, Christmas evolves beyond something God did to something God is always doing – a disclosure of who God is that enables us to see in every birth a Christmas and in every life the possibility of incarnation (imago dei).

Imagine the impact of this way of seeing Christmas on the pressing issues of our time.

Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.