To object indignantly to the commercialization of Christmas and to bemoan the loss of the true meaning of Christmas has become a cliche. So I risk being trite when I choose to discuss “the true meaning of Christmas.” I would not have chosen this topic if I did not think that the true meaning of Christmas has become obscured. But it is not the materialism and commercialization of Christmas that I want to oppose here. My objection is to how the “true meaning of Christmas” popularly offered in its place obscures the true meaning of Christmas.
If we read the clues in our culture–Hollywood Christmas stories, casual comments, Christmas cards, even some sermons–it becomes apparent what the “true meaning of Christmas” is supposed to be. Christmas is the celebration of love, generosity, benevolence, kindness, brotherhood, and familial bonding, and the celebration of the joy, peace, and security that those things promote. The true meaning of Christmas–according to this way of thinking–is a kind of Hallmark sentimentality about a world where there is no strife, no anger, no hatred, and no criticism; a world in which there is no warfare in any of its forms.
Is that, in fact, the true meaning of Christmas? No, it is not. The true meaning of Christmas is not about man loving man–or, if you were confused, human loving human. The true meaning of Christmas is about God loving man. It is about God giving the most amazing and spectacular gift to a certain chosen few. It is about God giving us the promise of the coming Kingdom and a salvaged heart out of which to desire it.
As I see it, three concepts are meant to capture the true meaning of Christmas as popularly understood: peace, joy, and love. It would be instructive to look at all three of these concepts, but I will look at only one to see if it accurately captures the true meaning of Christmas. Let’s look at “peace.”
As popularly understood, Christmas means the coming of peace between men. If we could simply imbibe the spirit of Christmas, there would be no more war or strife or hostility between us and other fellow-humans. If we could simply grasp the meaning of Jesus’ life, Jesus would eliminate the hatred and cruelty that exists between people.
But is this true? Not exactly. Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be members of his household.” God’s gift to us, in part, is a transformed heart–a transformation of our deepest being. It is a transformation that leads us to know and to love our creator. But such a gift makes us outcasts in this world. It makes us misunderstood and hated and persecuted. It does not bring peace; it brings antagonism and strife. It does not bring us happiness in human relationship; it brings us sorrow and grief.
Ah, “But the angels,” you say. The angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those men who are the objects of God’s choice.” They did sing of peace, but they did not sing of peace between men; they sang of peace between a man and his creator. For those few who have been chosen to receive life in God’s kingdom, the birth of Jesus brought about the end of their alienation from God. It brought about reconciliation. This reconciliation to God is the peace of which the angels sang.
But peace between men? Jesus did not come to bring that. He came to bring war. He came to wage a decisive battle in the war between good and evil, and he came to bring the hope of victory to those of us who are in the midst of that battle. Christmas does not mean peace; it means victory. Christmas does not mean the cessation of strife; it means the encouragement to continue the strife. The day will come when we can lay down our arms–when the war is over finally and permanently. But that day lies ahead–in the coming Kingdom. It is not now. In the meantime, the true meaning of Christmas is that our heroic captain has come to us in the midst of the battle for our lives and souls and has sent the enemy fleeing. That is the true meaning of Christmas. That is why we celebrate. Christmas does not make life any easier, nor any smoother. Life is full of hardship, the hardship and sacrifice of the battlefield. Our joy is not the joy of going home when the enemy has been subdued. Our joy is the joy that comes as we are engaged in combat and see our enemy turn and run. Our joy is the joy of the hope of victory. Good will triumph over evil. The Kingdom of Heaven will be secured. My soul will–once and for all–be delivered from the evil that has held it captive all my life. There will be freedom. There will be liberation. Rejoice! Our King and conquering Hero has come!
As the magi and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph looked down on a baby lying in the manger, what brought them joy was not the vision of a world where everyone was as gentle and innocent as a baby. What brought them joy was the vision of the final and ultimate defeat of sin and death. They did not see a gentle baby; they saw a fierce warrior, a mighty king–a king who would subdue every enemy, conquer every foe, and bring about total and unfailing allegiance to God and the goodness which He is. He would bring about peace between people; but only after a long, hard, protracted struggle in which we must fight. The more immediate meaning of Christmas is not the joy of PEACE ON EARTH; it is the joy of the promise of VICTORY OVER EVIL.