Experiencing deeply the true meaning of Christmas depends on one accepting the events of the Christmas story, chiefly the astounding incarnation of Deity in the baby Jesus, as literal historical truth. The writers of the Gospels claim no less and the Bible’s message of salvation by sheer grace alone completely depends on the incarnation of God in Jesus actually happening. With this foundation, Pastor Keller applies the doctrine of the incarnation in four different ways that Christmas should change us. This post reflects on the first two qualities: ‘deeply mystical’ and ‘happily material’
Deeply Mystical – “And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3)
If ultimately reality, God, actually took on human form and lived a complete human life from cradle to grave, what we can know about God and how we relate to Him fundamentally changes: we have in Christmas the basis for a personal relationship with God. The word ‘fellowship’ in this Scriptural text denotes an intimate, loving friendship. It is analogous to knowing a historical person through a book that is based on personal, autobiographical accounts. Keller asks us to consider the difference between a historian writing a biography based on secondary sources and on five letters the person wrote to his wife versus a historian writing a biography based on what he believes are authentic autobiographical records, like memoirs. Which one is going to give us a more personal and specific understanding?
If Jesus is God incarnate, we have in the Gospel accounts, and by extension the rest of Scripture, an autobiographical narrative of God. Incarnation invites us to look at what God has done to open Himself to you to get you to know Him personally and to draw near. It shows that He purposes to be more than a concept to us, but as close as a friend, even a lover.
Before our children we born, my wife and I made the unusual (and unpopular) decision not to celebrate Christmas in our home with Santa Claus as a real figure. Our children know about Santa Claus – we read them and let them watch Santa stories – but have never believed he is a real person who delivers gifts to them on Christmas. Some would (and have!) accuse us of robbing our children of the wonder and awe of Christmas by dispelling them of the mystery of Santa Claus, but we argue that our approach to celebrating Christmas actually increases their experience of wonder and awe by making them more mystical.
The difference is that we teach them that the mystery of Christmas is based on reality, not a myth. To help them experience real mystery rather than fabricated mythology, we help them worship ‘the Father and the Son’ all month by singing Christmas hymns and carols, reading a splendid Advent book that apportions the whole Christmas narrative into 25 different sections, exposing them to sermons at church on ancient prophesies in the Old Testament fulfilled through Christmas, and even memorizing and reciting Mary’s Magnificat. The aim of these activities is more than just preventing them from being swept away by commericialism, but is to help them cultivate an intimate personal relationship God that makes them deeply mystical for their entire lives, not just until they grow up and learn Santa Claus isn’t real. What happens to the mystery then? Christmas should flood our hearts will real, life-transforming, enduring mystery in the form of fellowship with our eternal Creator.
Happily Material – “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 John 1:1)
Claims to have sensed the eternal and transcended would have been astounding to Greeks and Romans in the first century who, under the worldview shaping influence of Platonic philosophy, believed matter was bad. Even today the concept of the incarnation is incoherent to traditional religions which say that salvation is escaping out of this world. Christmas, rather, teaches that salvation is the kingdom of God coming into this world, to renew and rehabilitate it. After all, the Bible does not promise some Paradise removed from this world, but promises a new heaven and a new earth. Thus, the doctrine of the incarnation shows the importance of matter.
One of the main reasons people are unhappy during Christmas time is a dysfunctional relationship with the material world. I vividly remember one Christmas during my college years when my then 4 year old niece after receiving more gifts than she could possibly enjoy and appreciate broke down crying when she realized that all her gifts were opened and there were no more left for her. Surrounded by all these wonderful new toys, she could not enjoy them but just bawled because she was focused on what was missing rather than what she had. I had just started thinking critically about the problem with materialism in Christmas and this scene epitomized for me the problem with setting our heart’s affections of material possessions to find happiness.
But as we are so prone to do when we make critical judgments about anything, I reacted by going to the opposite extreme of shunning gift giving, neither wanting to give nor receive anything for Christmas, viewing the material, like the Greeks, as bad. I felt guilty getting gifts and buying them for others. Frankly, I am still recovering from this attitude and seeking a proper balance. On one hand, Christmas teaches me not to exalt material possessions as the source of ultimate happiness, but to find joy in fellowship with God by grace. But on the other hand, Christmas teaches me the value of the material world and how I can enjoy material things when put in their proper place. As the Apostle Paul teaches, ““12All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12).