What Christmas means to religious Christians
It's best summed up in one word: "revolution"
Ah, Christmas. Shopping malls, holiday sales, eggnog, and fraudulent fat men.
What's that you say? There must be something more to the meaning of Christmas? Of course, you're right. Christmas is the second most important Christian holiday, after Easter and the days leading up to it. Christmas, you see, is the feast that best symbolizes the Incarnation.
The thing that separates Christianity from all other religions is the belief that its founder was not just a messenger from God, but God himself, in the flesh. That is what the Incarnation means — that the God who created the Universe loves us so much that to save us, he became one of us.
But how could the almighty God who created everything become a mere human person, subject to suffering and death like everyone else? That is the paradox and mystery, which is made even more pointed when the God of the Universe is revealed as a baby.
Many Christians would say that it is precisely this paradox that reveals God's greatness: God is so great that he can even become a baby if he wants to, defying our human logic. God is not stuck up there in some heavenly realm. In technical theological language, we would say that it is because God is perfectly transcendent that he is perfectly immanent: It is because God is utterly beyond the Universe, and not just some superbeing inside the Universe, that a grain of sand has equal importance to him as galaxies, and that he can be at the same time a baby and the force that sustains supernovas into existence.
The paradox of the Incarnation reaches perhaps its highest pitch in the early Christian Church's proclamation that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had the title of Theotokos, or "Mother of God." Er, excuse me? A Palestinian peasant woman, the mother of the God who created the Universe billions of years before she was even born? How can a creature be the mother of her creator? Have you been drinking the communion wine again?
But this is the power of the paradox — and what shows God's greatness, Christians believe. God decided to be a human being completely, so much so that the mother of the human being he was incarnate as can justly be called the mother of God, and venerated as such.
But why become a human being anyway? The very early Christian Church produced a formula that endures to this day: "God became man so that man could become a god." God created human beings not to be highly capable monkeys, nor disembodied spirits sitting on clouds playing harps, but rather to be divine beings who would assist him in being wise and just co-rulers of the Universe. Because of human rebellion, the plan went wrong: Both human nature and the Universe got broken. God decided to fix this by joining our human nature to his divine nature. God, in taking on human nature through Jesus, thereby divinizes human nature, changes what it means to be a human being, and then opens up the way for all those who follow him.
The central claim of Christianity is that God loves men so much that he decided not just to save us, but to do it by becoming one of us. Christmas is one of the events that brings this claim into sharpest focus.
But for Christians, Christmas doesn't just have a metaphysical message, as central as it is. It also has a social and political message.
The social message is obvious. God chose a poor family as his home. He was born not in a king's palace, but a manger. Attended not by courtiers but by farm animals and shepherds. His family had to spend time as refugees. Christmas also reminds Christians that God is on the side of the poor and marginalized, and that they need to be, too.
The political message is even more often forgotten. For the Gospels, the Incarnation is a declaration of war, quite literally. So much is wrong with our world because it is in bondage to demonic forces, acting through the tyrants of this world, and Jesus came here to defeat them, and establish a Church that would take up that fight and finish it. And those powers know what is going on: When King Herod hears of Jesus, his first reaction is to go on a murder rampage. This is not fun and games, this is cosmic war, the Gospels tell us.
In the Gospel of Luke, which is perhaps our most important source for the Christmas story, there is a famous scene where angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds. In our art, this scene is almost always depicted in the most kitschy, sentimental style. But in the Bible, angels are God's celestial killing machines. Luke describes the angels as a "heavenly army." The structure of Luke's entire Christmas narrative sets up an opposition between Jesus and the Roman emperor. Remember that Jesus' parents have to travel to Bethlehem because of a census demanded by the emperor, then the most powerful man on Earth. For Luke, it was personal: He probably wrote his Gospel in Rome just a few years after Nero's persecutions against the Christians, when his close friend the apostle Paul, along with Peter, the head of the Church, were murdered by the emperor.
Remember the scene in Crocodile Dundee where someone tries to rob the protagonist at knife-point, and he pulls out his machete, and says, "You think that's a knife? That's a knife." Luke's scene with the angels is him saying to the emperor and his legions: "You think that's an army? That's an army."
Which, of course, was completely insane. Rome was the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, and the Christians were a ragtag group of nobodies. And yet, as we all know, Luke was right: The Roman Empire tried with all its might to destroy the Christian Church, and the Christian Church won.
Perhaps the best word to sum up Christmas is "revolution." A metaphysical revolution, in how we understand the divine and how it relates to us. A social revolution. A political revolution. And above all, a revolution of love. Not bad for one night in a barn.