Christmas predates Christ. We have all heard this. Jesus was probably born in the spring, yet the Christian Church has always celebrated his birth at the darkest time of the year. The more dismissive view of this tradition is that it was a way that the Church could co-opt pagan holidays for their own nefarious purposes. The popular Christian counter-explanation for this is the idea that—regardless of when Jesus was actually born—the meteorological symbolism is the chief thing: that when everything was cold and dark, Christ, the true light, entered the world. This certainly resonates with me: The contrast between the light and darkness of the year is pleasurable, as is the juxtaposition of cold and heat. If Christ is the Light of the World, he is brightest when darkness is most pervasive.
"The meteorological symbolism is the chief thing: that when everything was cold and dark, Christ, the true light, entered the world. "
Yet even the view that the Christmas is an airbrushed pagan holiday can give us a certain amount of insight into the nature of a God who becomes human, entering our culture from the inside and sanctifying it. To explode another myth, while we're at it—just because he was laid in a manger doesn't mean Jesus was born in a stable. Many scholars think that the word translated "inn" in Luke 2 actually means "guest room." Homes during this time were typically composed of two rooms—a nice inner room for guests, where traveling family stayed, and an outer room in which members of the host family—including animals—stayed as well. Just because Jesus was laid in some poor animal's food trough does not mean he was born on the edges of town, in some remote stable. On the contrary, while he is surely Holy, surely Other, surely miraculous, he is part of the noise, bother, and disruption of humanity from the very beginning. There may not have been space within the inner room for yet another family member, but he made his dwelling with people. This is paralleled by the story of the shepherds—consummate outsiders whose otherworldly encounter with angels draws them not to further ecstatic mountaintop experiences but rather toward the homely lights of Bethlehem to see a seemingly ordinary human child.
If God became fully human—if he lived a life as 'one of us,' punctuated by moments of excitement, boredom, pain, pleasure and reflection—why then, there is no moment in our own lives which he has not made holy. Every aspect of our own lives is a chance not only to connect to our fellow man, but to Almighty God himself through Christ. He is 'very man of very man.'
"If God became fully human—if he lived a life as 'one of us,' punctuated by moments of excitement, boredom, pain, pleasure and reflection—why then, there is no moment in our own lives which he has not made holy."
Not only that, but through Christ, the objective has somehow entered the subjective, redeeming and dignifying it. As humans we practice rituals, fasts and feasts even when we try to avoid doing so. We are creatures, subject to time and the changes of the year, and it is natural for us to use tradition to remember what is important, and celebrate it. God, it seems, actually may make appearances in these man-made temples, as he did in Solomon's. In fact, he loves to.
This has become my favorite time of year, not only because it celebrates God's gift, but also the eagerness (not desperate but joyful) with which he makes himself known, even to pagan kings who find him through pagan sciences like astrology—the important thing, as always, was their hearts. He is willing also to sanctify the Christmas Tree and electric stars we have strewn about the earth, and the carols, liturgical and silly. But we must seek him, the source of all beauty, heavenly, earthly, temporary and permanent. And the more we adore, the more we see to adore, both in him and in all that is being drawn up into him, joining the great dance and feast of love which existed before all worlds.