Even for the average Christian, it’s not really Christmas anymore. He may know it is technically still the Christmas ‘season,’ and he may attend an extra religious service here and there. If he is a Catholic or an Orthodox, and unusually pious, he may follow the lectionary readings at home, prolonging his appreciation of the meaning of Christmas. Then, he moves on. Life, even religious life, returns to normal.
But what is the meaning of Christmas that literate and pious Christians seek to experience, at least once a liturgical year? And for those believers in Christ who know no such thing as liturgy, who fly by the seat of their bible breaches, hanging on the words of their favorite preachers, what does it mean that God became incarnate, was born of a virgin, laid in a manger, and attended by sages, shepherds and angels?
Everyone knows the story, even those who know nothing else about that Baby. What is the meaning of Christmas to the Japanese who celebrate it with a late night Christmas cake? Or to the Indonesians who add decorative antlers or bells to their burkhas, as they shop at malls where Christmas music is piped in, and where they can take their kids to see Santa? Or closer to home, to those who’d rather not believe?
I wonder what those who’d rather not believe what they see before their eyes for two months leading to this final week of December, what meaning does Christmas have for them? Because you see, it does have a meaning, it must have. There is no escape from it, outside of taking very deliberate steps to hide oneself from its effects. For them, the meaning of Christmas must be all they hate and try to avoid.
But back to the rest of us, Christian and non-Christian believers in something and somebody. What is the meaning of Christmas? To those outside Christianity, Jesus might be a great philosopher or brilliant rabbi but no messiah, his birth an exaggeration of what such a prodigy should expect. To those of a pluralistic mind, his birth might be an example of an incarnation of a god, an avatar, nothing more extraordinary than that.
These avatars are many. Their devotees believe that when the world descends into a very dark age, and miscreants rule in place of righteous kings, a god will descend to earth in human form, but always still a god, his manhood only an appearance. The meaning of such a divine descent is exactly and only a visitation, its purpose to fix what’s broken, and then to subtly withdraw to the spiritual sky, till next time.
The odd thing, as I reflect on the Christians that I’ve known in my life and studied about in history, is that Christian believers mostly seem to hold views about the meaning of the Incarnation (and now I must capitalize it as a proper, a very proper noun) very similar to the two described above. Whatever creed they formally profess, they believe either that He is a great Sage, or that He is some kind of Avatar of God.
Many are willing to call Him ‘Son of God’ and even ‘Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made,’ and subscribe doctrinally to all kinds of ideas that if probed deeply enough they’d confess as nonsense, because what they do with the faith or dogma they profess reveals what they really think His Incarnation means, something between a scolding and a suggestion to be a better person for a reward.
Others are willing to push their limits a little further, study, pray, and practice more the tenets of their religion, which they say comes from Jesus Christ. They even seek Him daily, try to get to know Him better, try to find out ‘what would Jesus do’ and then try to do it. The meaning of the Incarnation for them means, something between being good and doing good, because He came, He conquered, He left.
The gods of polytheists may have avatars who visit mankind once or twice, now and then, to teach mankind, cleanse the earth of evil, set things right, but that’s all just mythology, those gods don’t really exist, and that’s why it doesn’t quite work. The world, and humanity, is just as much in bad shape as ever. The same may be true of the Incarnation of the real God, Jehovah, but at least He’s really there.
The meaning of Christmas must be the meaning of the Incarnation. The meaning of the Incarnation must be, in spite of whatever the Christian religion does with it, that God did not send a moral teacher or an avatar of Himself on a charity call, but that He infiltrated our entire race in Jesus the Second Adam, uniting His Divine Nature to our human nature, not temporarily, but permanently and eternally.
What else can it mean, then, to say that in Christ’s Incarnation, God became man, so that man can become God? There was no ‘can’ in God’s becoming man, because His will is always to do His will, He ‘became,’ but also He ‘becomes,’ He ‘is becoming,’ and so it is only our will in not wanting what He wills that allows us to say man ‘can become’ instead of man ‘becomes,’ and man ‘is becoming,’ yet this is true.
The gospel tells no lies, does not trick us into religious faith, does not hold out to us empty promises, or build ‘pie in the sky’ palaces to comfort us for having to suffer so much and for so long. The gospel tells us the truth, ‘He came to His own domain and His own people did not accept Him. But to all who did accept Him He gave power to become children of God’ (John 1:11-12). Now, read it in the present tense.
Why? Because Christ is with us. He is here and now with us. He is in our midst. He is among us. He always was, is, and will be. He tells us, ‘I am with you till the end of time’ (Matthew 28:20). This is not what a moral teacher says. This is not what an avatar does. The Ascension (and disappearance) of Christ does not, cannot, mean absence. It inaugurates a real presence, real because universal and permanent.
God becomes man, enters into our DNA chain, shares our gene pool. We now all have Divine DNA, all our genes now carry Divine potency. Just as the Baptism of Christ in the waters of the Jordan has made all water, everywhere, holy, so has His Incarnation in the human race made the whole of humanity a holy Being. Now, the Divine counsel, ‘Be holy, for I am holy,’ is heard within us, cycling in our blood.
This is the meaning of the Incarnation. It is not religion, for the barrier that protected God from the people, and the people from God, has disappeared. It was the veil of the Temple that was sundered when Christ died on the Cross. The meaning of the Incarnation is the revelation that Paradise is ever-present, that mankind in Christ now reigns with Him on the Throne of the Holy Trinity, as They have decreed,
‘Your ancestors will be replaced by sons
whom you will make lords of the whole world’
‘O House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of Yahweh’