What's Christmas about? I know, consumerism! Wait, no, I know, it's about family! Ok, closer. Christmas is about many things. The story is so multifaceted that it's helpful to look at some meanings of Christmas we might not pay attention to — meanings that can change people's lives. Here are five:
The Christmas story takes place within a larger story, the Bible, which is a story about, well, everything — literally, the history of the cosmos and the God who created it. The master narrative of the Bible is about God creating a universe for the benefit of his creatures to experience the delights of communion, the ensuing catastrophe that damages this creation, and then God's decision to rescue and redeem His creation.
How does God do it? Through a covenant. In the ancient world a covenant was the strongest form of alliance. Contracts are rules for the exchange of goods and services, but covenants are the agreements for the exchange of people and their behavior— a covenant creates a family bond. And the most important covenant in the Bible when Jesus was born was God's covenant with Abraham, through which God created a people, taught them His rules, and through them, redeemed the rest of creation. This is the story of Israel. And much of the Bible is taken up by the same theme: Israel is constantly disobeying God, leading it into all sorts of trouble, but God never wavers from His end of the covenant.
The story of Christmas is about God fulfilling his own end of the bargain and sending the Messiah through whom the covenant is realized. Christmas can't be understood without understanding this rich, Biblical backdrop, of the story of the Universe and of Israel.
Christmas is the birth of the king. Luke's Gospel, from which we get most of the Christmas narrative, is clear about this — the author emphasizes connections between the baby Jesus and the rulers of the age. The story starts with Augustus Caesar and his census of "all the inhabited earth." And yet an angel appears to shepherds to give them the news of the birth of Jesus, "in the City of David," the historic king of Israel, "the Messiah, the Lord." And with this, "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army." This is Luke saying to the Roman emperor, Crocodile Dundee-style: "That's not an army. That's an army."
The political meaning of Christmas is that every ruler and every authority answers to God — the little child wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, the God of humility and mercy, who is the God of the downtrodden.
The new king wasn't born in a palace, his birth wasn't hailed by heralds fanning out to every corner of the empire. Instead, his family were refugees: They couldn't find room at the inn; Mary gave birth in a stable; and the child had to rest in a manger. The message of Christmas is, inescapably, a message about the poor, about the little ones, about those who are pushed to the margins of society. They are the ones God chooses, the ones He looks to first.
For Christians, Jesus isn't simply an important figure and a spiritual leader or teacher. He is the Son of God — he is God made man. Along with the Cross, Christmas brings home to us the sheer uncanniness of this relationship. As G.K. Chesterton put it, "the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle."
The Incarnation, as this doctrine is known, changed the meaning of God and the universe. God is a God of love, a love that is expressed by His becoming one of us, and sharing our experience. God saves us, not just though a legalistic transaction whereby our sins are forgiven, but by joining his nature to ours. As a hallowed phrase in the Christian tradition has it, "the Son of God became man so that we might become God." The vocation of the Universe is for God to be "all in all." Christmas' cosmic meaning reveals to us the nature of the Universe.
If we really let this story reach down into us, it will change us at a deep, personal level. The "sign" that the angel gives to the shepherds is that they will find a baby in a manger — a reference to the Eucharist, where God gives himself to us as food. This is the depth of God's love and humility: He wants to be joined to us at the deepest level, to be united to us, even becoming food to do so.
When we let all those strands of meaning converge in us — Biblical, political, social, metaphysical — we have a glimpse that life is about love, a love that "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things," a love that gives itself completely.