People often lament that in our celebration of Christmas, we tend to lose sight of its true meaning. Not to be a contrarian, but I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.
At Christmastime, we celebrate family, giving, tradition, friendship, community, love, goodwill and so much else that is great and good about human existence. These sublime experiences and institutions are wonderful precisely because our savior, in whom goodness inheres, created them.
With proper godly perspective, delighting in these glorious gifts actually enhances our focus on God; it doesn't diminish it. Of course, we must discipline ourselves, if it doesn't occur naturally, to give thanks to God and to consciously savor him and his gift of life to us.
This time of year, we celebrate Christ's incarnation -- his birth, his earthly example and his miracles and teachings. We humbly bow at the Crucifixion, marvel at the magisterial Resurrection and gratefully acknowledge our regeneration salvation in him. We cherish that he is truth, the judge and the very giver of life.
Unlike the mythical god of deism, our God did not create us and then callously abandon us to a desperate state of sinfulness, misery and suffering. He is not only the Creator but also the sustainer of the universe. The writer of Hebrews assures us, "He upholds the universe by the word of His power." The Apostle Paul proclaims, "He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together."
Though God gave us the freedom to sin and mankind subsequently fell, Christ became sin for us, thereby conquering sin and death. He offers us redemption and eternal life in his presence.
It is fitting that we celebrate Christ's birth, because his redeeming work on our behalf -- his death on the Cross and thus our salvation -- could not have been accomplished without his incarnation. It is all part of a piece. If he had merely been in form a human but in substance only God, his suffering, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection would have been illusory.
Paul wrote to the Philippians: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
Jesus wasn't just the greatest of all human prophets. He was fully God and fully man, a truth that Christians believed from the beginning and that the Council of Chalcedon formally affirmed in A.D. 451. "Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards His Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards His manhood."
Christianity's critics sometimes question God's permitting human suffering, but the Cross, to paraphrase the late Pastor John Stott, smashes those concerns to smithereens. Christ understands our suffering and even our mundane problems because he became one of us and experienced what we experience. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).
Christ suffered -- so that we can live -- more pain than anyone who has ever existed. It was not only his physical beatings and passion but also his excruciating separation from the Father and his endurance of God's wrath for all of the past, present and future sins of mankind. Moreover, God created us knowing at the time that Christ's human birth and sacrificial death would be necessary. John tells us that Jesus is "the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." A greater act of love is inconceivable.
Having become human and suffering as a human being, Christ is an empathetic, personal God, who is approachable to us and with whom we can have a personal relationship. "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).
This Christmas, let's celebrate the wonders of our existence as human beings created in God's image and with the capacity for his love, which we must abundantly share with one another. Let's draw near to his throne of grace, profusely thanking him for the undeserved mercy he gave us and meditating on "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable" (Philippians 4:8).