The great risk is the concentration on the Dickensian Christmas and the neglect of the Real Christmas. An even greater danger is the submerging of the spiritual Christmas in the worldly and sentimental Christmas, where even the churches forget the intended nature of the season which is to be God-centred and Gospel-centred.
Christmas is not mandated by the Bible. Every Lord’s Day is a Christmas, an Easter, and a comprehensive festal occasion embracing the whole scope of the Saviour’s redemptive mission. Historically, the Church has made pastoral provision for the emphasis on various aspects of faith and doctrine in the invention of the Church Calendar which facilitates special emphasis on the great facts and acts of God which constitute our salvation. Some of the Christian events, whether it be wise or not, coincide with pagan festivals for the purpose of evangelism and the demonstration of the supremacy of Christ. Some of the Christian celebrations have been taken back and corrupted by the world. Individual Christian consciences will deal with these matters differently. Some believers regard the marking (and then the marketing) of the Church Calendar as perverse, others take it as an opportunity for proclamation when the ear of the world is at least half-cocked and the nominal roll out to church in droves. The regulative and normative principles each have their point. The vital thing for the Christian community is to ensure that everything done is always God-centred and man-convicting.
The narrative of our Lord’s nativity is rife with misinterpretation, fanciful embellishment, and sceptical reservation. Distortion of and distraction from the truth abounds. For some the mystery of the Incarnation is entirely wrapped up in myth, for others the charm of the story, be it fact or fiction, is remote from reality and their own experience. There is a fascination without faith and a failure to grasp the central historical message – that the Son of God became flesh (the God-man), was laid in a crib at his birth, lived among us for a time, and was nailed to a cross for our sins. Christmas is the time for reflection on crib, cross, and the necessity of our conversion to Christ: “Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace may be daily renewed by your Holy Spirit” (Collect for Christmas Day). Christmas is to be pronouncedly salvation oriented: “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The Saviour is at the centre. Our sin is the cause of his coming. The Lord’s compassion is the dominant theme. Joy is our response. The purpose of the season cannot be overlaid by the “Dickensian” and secular elements that prevail, however congenial they may be. The real Christmas spirit is engendered by the Holy Spirit and some of the carols we customarily sing are masterly in their theology and message if we truly attend to them and give priority to message above melody. Christmas is a time for the Church of God to become evangelistic in the most beguiling way. The truths to which we testify are stupendous and invigorating. Each event, if proclaimed with conviction and passion, seizes the mind and moves the heart. We witness to a wonder – the Creator mingles with his creatures for their recovery to him, and so that they might live he endures death in his manhood in order to remove their offences against him. Christmas is the most dramatic account of the Lord’s infinite love for estranged and rebellious mankind. No description can do it justice. We simply must drink in the words of Holy Scripture until they work their profound effect and produce faith and gratitude.
Scripture must be pre-eminent. It is the wellspring of the genuine hope, peace, and joy we deeply crave. It is the “stocking” in which we find everlasting treasures and as we delve into it we find that the stock of divine gifts is inexhaustible. What flows from the container is continuous. The Lord Jesus is the gift that surpasses all and supplies all that God has to give. The Bible is an inventory of all that God has in store for us, and what we have so far received is only a foretaste. The Lord’s season of generosity has no time limit.
Christmas is the season for celebrating mercy. The bounty we receive is the Lord Jesus himself, the forgiveness and life forever with him that he bestows. Martin Luther is adamant that the angelic message to the shepherds concerning joy should include the indefinite article i.e. “I bring you news of a great Joy”, the person of the Lord Jesus (Luke 210). He is Joy personified and present within us who believe.
There is yet another necessary amendment to the text of Luke’s gospel, now recognized by translators, that alters the unfortunate traditional misreading that misinforms us as to the core of the Christmas observance. The correction shifts the focus from man to God, and is consistent with the primary sentiment of the angels’ song, “Glory to God in the highest”. “The peace on earth” that ensues from the Saviour’s birth is wrought by God, principally through the One who was crucified. And the “good will” does not flow from men to men, but happens to be the favour of God that rests upon his chosen people i.e. “Peace to men on whom his favour rests”. The heavenly chorus extols saving grace, and that is the essence of Christmas, and the possession we are encouraged to gain through faith. But faith is not the currency we exchange for the divine favour it is the God-given means of appropriation. Salvation is free and faith constitutes our union with the Giver, the linking of hands between the donor and the recipient. Faith is the channel of transference. In his grip we are graced and he forges the connection. Leon Morris, one of our leading Anglican commentators on Scripture, writes, “There is an emphasis on God, not man. It is those whom God chooses, rather than those who choose God, of whom the angels speak” (Luke, Revised Edition, IVP, Leicester, England). The old approach to the passage, and many approaches to Christmas, are an attempted robbery of the glory solely due to God, and theft of the gift he proffers to men through his Gospel. May glory and gift be recovered.