The real Jesus is not necessarily the one in my heart; He is the one in Bethlehem. Christmas offers me the God who is actually there. Today, my faith is given an anchor. A face. A name. A body.
When I wrestle with the truth of Christianity, I must wrestle with this body—the body in the manger, who is the body on the cross, who is the body missing in the grave. In this body is contained the story of the world, the meaning of life, the purpose of my existence.
But thinking too long and hard about Jesus at Christmastime can sabotage my Christmas experience. There is no quicker way to get me to put down my cup of hot cocoa and shut off “Jingle Bell Rock” than bringing to mind the baby who was born to die—and his mother who would watch in helpless horror as her 33-year-old little boy is crucified on the tree of knowledge.
The spirit of Christmas—coming home, baking cookies, giving gifts, spreading love/peace/joy—is much more marketable than the facts of Christmas. It is much more pleasant to believe in Santa than to believe in Jesus. Only those who need to believe in Jesus during the “happiest time of the year” do.
So to get through Christmas without being too intense about it, I busy myself with hanging lights, shopping lists, shipping deadlines, sending cards, wrapping presents. I distance myself from the reality of Christmas, the theology of Christmas. I save my intense emotions for Easter.
No wonder Christmas is never quite what I hope for. When Christmas ends, it feels more like I’ve completed a project than beheld the face of God.
Christmas is still the best time of year because Jesus is everywhere—at least symbolically. Christmas brings out the best in sinners. It celebrates everything that is good in the world. Every year, I am impressed by how little joy, hope, peace, and love sinners really need to get by. Perhaps that is why Santa will always have more fans and followers than Jesus.
The hope of salvation offered in the Incarnation—God entering the world in a flesh-and-blood body to bear our sins and earn our righteousness—belongs even to those of us who call ourselves Christians but haven’t reflected on Jesus, didn’t go to church today, and couldn’t tell you why exactly he is the “reason for the season”. Christmas belongs especially to those of us who still don’t quite believe in a good God, a personal God, a literal God.
The miracle of Christmas: the meaning of the Incarnation is not dependent on the ability to understand it or celebrate it; it is dependent on itself, its own occurrence.
The actual, historical event of Christ’s birth frees Christmas to be whatever it was this year. And that offers me a silent night, a holy night.