The Meaning of Christmas

"Heart," Image by Mallory Dash via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Merry Christmas, Dear Working Preachers.

I hope you will be forgiving of a rather personal perspective on Christmas for this week’s column. Yet, I do have a rationale for doing so — I think that somehow, someway, the meaning of Christmas has to be lodged somewhere, someplace deep inside who you are. Then, you might actually have an embodied experience of a rather baffling and bewildering doctrine in which we believe, but at the end of the day with which, if we are honest, we hardly know what to do.

Of course, that confusing and confounding confession is the incarnation itself. What does the incarnation really mean? Yes, of course, always, it means that God chose to enter into our humanity, in all of its fullness and foibles, its power and pain, its joys and sorrows. Yes, of course it means that God would even experience death itself, only to defeat its determined grip on our lives and turn it into eternal life. But what does it really mean for us, here and now and today, beyond the truth of Jesus of Nazareth and the promise of an empty tomb?

The incarnation means that at the same time the incarnation is a revelation of God, it is also a revelation of who we are. We begin to realize that in God’s decision to become human that our humanity matters. We begin to recognize that in God’s commitment to bodies that our bodies matter. We begin to remember that in God’s determination to be known in the flesh means that doing ministry in the flesh matters.

I suspect that my angle of perspective on Christmas this year has something to do with my birthday, and not just any birthday. I will turn fifty this year on the twenty-fourth of December. I’m embarrassed to say that for many years of my life I didn’t realize that my birthday was not actually Christmas. To discover that Jesus’ birthday was Christmas Day was, well, a rather big surprise.

To be clear, I was not purposely misled — this was just my assumption. My parents were very good about separating the birthday and Christmas celebrations. I never felt cheated (with the exception of the occasional “here’s your Christmas/Birthday present!). I’ve always felt like it was one of the most special days to have a birthday. We usually went out for breakfast Christmas Eve morning (I was born at 8:01AM) and Christmas Eve night marked Christmas. Christmas Day was not necessarily an afterthought, but the celebrating, the present opening, even a visit from Santa himself, all happened Christmas Eve evening.

The reactions to my birthday over the years have been interesting, to say the least. One time in particular comes to mind, at a Kroger’s grocery store when I was living in Georgia. A bottle of wine was included with my grocery purchase, which meant showing your driver’s license. I remember the clerk looking at my ID, taking a second glance at my birthday date, and saying, “Wow. A Christmas Eve birthday. That really sucks.”

No. No it really doesn’t. It’s a very special day to have a birthday because I am special. Every birthday is special. That is, in part, what Christmas means. Births bring into the world beings that can never again be replicated — true for God, true for us.

As I said, I will turn fifty this birthday. This is rather stunning to me. On many levels. Why? Well, it’s fifty. You wonder how that happens. You are grateful. All of that. But amazing also how it causes a rather intense retrospective. I can’t help but remember Wendy, a member of my church on internship, whose birthday was December 11 and who died at the age of forty-four of breast cancer when her children were about the same age as mine are now.

As I put the finishing touches on this article, it’s my youngest son’s fifteenth birthday (also born prematurely, five pounds, 10 ounces) and we will go get his learner’s permit tomorrow morning. On Facebook on Friday I posted about hearing ninety sermons this semester. So I began to wonder, since teaching when doing my graduate work twenty years ago, how many sermons have I listened to over the years. You look back on your life with its entirety in view.

So, this is what I would preach. That God was born, was human, means that I matter — that I am special. Not in some sort of narcissistic, egocentric, kind of way but because to be human can never be a generalized claim. To be human is to be you. Be you.

And no, it’s not all about you, but it’s everything about you. The incarnation is this radically reciprocal reality. God’s commitment to being human in Jesus is God also saying, “I am committed to you being you and being fully you.” It is God saying “I love the truly you.”

Richard Rohr writes, “The True Self — where you and God are one — does not choose to love as much as it is love itself already (see Colossians 3:3-4). The True Self does not teach us compassion as much as it is compassion. Loving from this core of your being is experienced as a river within you that flows of its own accord (see John 7:38-39). From this more spacious and grounded place, one naturally connects, empathizes, forgives, and loves everything. We were made in love, for love, and unto love. This deep inner ‘yes,’ that is God in me, is already loving God through me. The false self does not really know how to love, in a very deep or broad way. It is too opportunistic. It is too small. It is too self-referential to be compassionate.”[1]

Christmas is the gift from God of God’s very self for the sake of you being your very self so that the world might indeed know God’s love — in, through, and because of you.

Merry Christmas indeed.



[1] “Love Summary for the Year: Week 1,” Center for Action and Contemplation,