Billions of people around the world are heading into Christmas, a key celebration for Christianity in all its many variations.
But what does this holiday really mean?
For a great many Americans, it means commercial excess and big flashy gifts. Donald J. Trump, for instance, has said he has just given the country "a big, beautiful present" in the form of a tax cut, which -- as nearly every analyst suggests -- will deliver a hefty gift to the wealthy.
But he's not alone in missing the point of Christmas. It's true that not many of us can say we're having a 350-pound gingerbread replica of our house on display this year, but lots of us run ourselves ragged (or have done so already) doing last-minute shopping, racing around to office parties, or trying to achieve that perfect level of holiday sparkle for our kids.
Needless to say, Christmas is not simply about giving presents. It's not about miles of twinkling lights and gigantic cakes or lavish displays of worldly goods. Indeed, the imagery and songs that adorn Christmas in our secular age -- these days, starting even before Halloween -- are sadly a distraction from this holiday's deep meaning.
In the secular world, this season is about family, for sure, and valuing the things we love. But for Christians, it's far more interesting and important than this. Lately, in fact, I've begun to think that Christmas rivals, even surpasses, Easter as the major event on the Christian calendar.
Let me explain why that's so important. Christians look to Christmas as a time to remember the coming into this world of the Messiah, which in Greek is translated as "the Christ." The season itself is called Advent, which goes back to another Greek word, parousia, which means "miraculous appearance" or "manifestation." Christ was not the last name of Jesus of Nazareth. It was his identity as the voice of God in the human world.
Christians believe that Jesus offered that voice to the world, becoming the human face of God. In doing so, he could show humans what God wished for us, how he wanted us to talk, to behave, to live -- as well as to die.
Christmas is not just about a sweet child being born in a manger in Bethlehem under difficult circumstances. It's about Incarnation itself.
Incarnation is everything in the Christian life. The word means "putting into flesh." God, the spiritual presence, entered the human world in the person of Jesus, Christians believe. Richard Rohr, the great Franciscan priest and theologian, puts it well: "For Franciscans, Christmas is more significant than Easter. Christmas is already Easter!"
Jesus was a child born under suspicion (because his parents were not yet married). And it's meaningful that he arrived as a small, insignificant child, one born not from a wealthy or powerful family but, indeed, a refugee family.
With the Christmas story as it is presented in Matthew's gospel, the mere existence of Jesus threatened the authority of King Herod, who ruled over ancient Judea. To eradicate this threat, he had all children under the age of two slain, and to escape this act of state terrorism, Jesus and his family fled to Egypt, where they hid until it was safe for the family to return to their home.
And so Jesus speaks to everyone who is on the run, to all refugees, to the poor, for those who are excluded because there is "no room at the inn."
(And it's not for nothing that he devoted his ministry to those without money or influence, warning the wealthy that it was easier for "a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.")
Which brings us back to my argument that Christmas is as important as Easter, the holiday considered the most crucial in the Christian calendar because it commemorates the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.
Think about it this way: Christmas is about revealing the divinity in each of us. We have a piece of God in us, and Jesus reveals how to access that holy part of ourselves.
Jesus was not God's Plan B. He was Plan A. As Rohr explains, and I've gradually come to believe: "Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity." Rather, Jesus came into this world "to change the mind of humanity about God."
Wow. Let's take on Christmas as God intended: as a sacred time to celebrate that instant when the timelessness of God intersected with human time.
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