Sometimes at Christmas we get so caught up with the magi, shepherds, and the barnyard animals around the manger that we forget about the birth that the birth of Christ set into motion. Sometimes, the familiar nativity display so dominates our imagination that we forget the purpose of the One who was born.
The One whose birth we celebrate will grow up and will speak clearly to us of this purpose: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b, NRSV). Of him, John, the Gospel-writer, will say, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4, NRSV).
This life will take on a specific shape. The One who was born to give life will do so through dying. The life of God that Christ offers comes through human death. By giving up earthly life, he revealed heavenly life—a life that entails a lessening of the world’s hold on us and an increasing of God’s hold on us through Christ and his Spirit. Paul speaks of this when he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, NRSV).
At Christmas, we need to remember that Christmas is only the beginning of the story, and it is the rest of the story which makes the birth of Christ something worthy of our attention. The one who gives life offers it indiscriminately to all who will come to him, even to untrustworthy shepherds and religiously suspect magi. We give our lives that are doomed to end in death anyway to the one who died and was risen, who gives us new, eternal lives as eternal daughters and sons of God Himself. No one ever described this transaction more eloquently and succinctly than the missionary-martyr Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
To think rightly about Christmas is to remember that our celebration of Christ’s birth is also a celebration of our own spiritual birth as well. “You must be “born from above,” Jesus tells the seeking-Pharisee Nicodemus (John 3:3). “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6, NRSV), he tells him. To be “born from above” is to have the life of heaven enter into you. Because Jesus was born on earth, we are born in heaven. Because Jesus was born in the flesh, we are born of the Spirit.
In the manger of Bethlehem is born the reconciliation of heaven with earth, where a heavenly life becomes earthly so that all earthly lives may be heavenly. The ensuing life that grows from Bethlehem throughout the world is one marked by the heavenly virtues of love, trust and hope, which are the fuel for human joy.
It is only appropriate that Luke includes in his account of Christ’s birth the celebration of heaven:
“Hark! The herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.'”
In a sense, all Christian worship is an echo of the angels’ singing and the angels’ witness:
“Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim,
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’
In the wonderfully simple words of George Whitefield, “Jesus was God and man in one person, that God and man might be happy together again.” That’s the Gospel of Christmas, and that’s why heaven sings, with the Bethlehem baby as heaven’s invitation to join in the singing.
So, if you should wish someone “Merry Christmas,” say it like you mean it, for you are making a statement about reality. And if you wish someone “Happy Holidays,” say that like you mean it too, for it is an echo of the joy of Christmas, and those with ears to hear your greeting might just hear the angels singing in it.