by David Shanahan
I suppose Christmas is most people’s favourite holiday of the year. It has the reputation of being a time of goodwill and generosity, food and drink and presents and children and all the rest. Certainly, for Christians, it is so important, one of the most pivotal moments in history, and one of a series of events that resulted in Easter, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In this secular, post-Christian world in which we live today, Christmas has lost most of that spiritual importance, and the “Spirit of Christmas” for most people has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus and the Word becoming flesh and living among us, as John put it.
There’s been a lot of naysaying about the fact that Jesus was probably not born on December 25, or that the date was “lifted” from pagan sources and was originally the festival marking the “dies solis invicti nati”, or the day of the birth of the unconquered sun, marking the winter solstice. For Christians, that is irrelevant, though the “unconquered sun” seems appropriate! Those who say that Jesus never existed are simply ignorant of the overwhelming amount of evidence for his life, death and resurrection and should read the detailed historical context provided by Luke in his two-volume history.
All of that aside, Christmas is the point at which the world changed from Old Testament to New, when God took on humanity in order to bring us back to himself. Why? As Gabriel said to Mary when he told her what her child would be called: “because he will save his people from their sins”, Jesus being the Greek form of Joshua, meaning God is salvation. For most people these days, I think, that phrase “will save his people from their sins” probably means nothing, something that doesn’t compute in their lives. Sins are often seen as bad things people do, part of being human, and no big deal, unless it means something serious, like murder. What does it mean to be “saved” from them?
The Christian knows that the “bad things we do” are symptoms, not the disease; that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, as Paul says in writing to the Christians in Rome. The symptoms may differ from person to person, but the disease is universal because this is a fallen, broken, and often very evil world, as a single news broadcast will show. And the cause of that fall is a rebellion, a resistance to God and his rule. In fact, the New Testament says that this resistance, this rebellion is an expression of humanity’s hatred of God. That’s pretty strong language.
The phrase, “he will save his people from their sins” means that, somehow, Jesus came to restore peace, to provide a way back from rebellion to relationship. That is why Christmas is a time of joy for Believers, but also one which points forward to Easter, the Crucifixion by which Jesus broke the power of sin forever. And that was not the end: the Resurrection is the great event that proved his victory over sin and death, the guarantee that his people would share in that victory.
And there’s another point that has to be made. There is a common belief that everyone will be forgiven ‘in the end’, that everyone will be restored and go to Heaven, because, after all, God is a God of Love and wouldn’t send anyone to hell. That, sadly, does not agree with what Jesus himself taught, or what the Scriptures teach. That statement by Gabriel says “he will save his people”. Who are his people? Jesus told Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people in his day: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”. There’s that phrase that has been so misused for so long! The Gospel goes on to state: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
“Whoever believes in him”, means whoever trusts in him, believes what he said and is. Not everyone does. In fact, so many react really badly to this, becoming angry and insulted that anyone would call them a sinner in need of saving. They hate that. For others, this is indeed Good News, and they share in the joy and amazement expressed by that host of angels heard by the shepherds on the first Christmas:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
Do you believe it? Joy to the world!