For many good and right reasons one hears a lot in the annual lead-up to December 25 about “the true meaning of Christmas.” “Christmas is about giving and not receiving.” “Christmas is about putting aside differences and appreciating our families.” “Christmas is about remembering those who are less fortunate.” “Christmas is about love, and joy, and togetherness.” And so on.
All of these sentiments are good, and important, and worthy of reflection and application not only at Christmas time but throughout the year. It is a wonderful thing that this season encourages all of us to collectively focus attention on socially-equalizing and peace-loving values, and to do so in affirmative ways that are too often missing from our communal dialogue. I must take issue with all of them, however, as characterizations of the “true meaning of Christmas.”
The word Christmas is the slightly abbreviated combination of two words: Christ and mass. Christ, obviously, is one of the most universally recognized names for the second person of the Christian trinity, also known as Jesus. Mass, although now primarily associated with the Roman Catholic church, can in this usage be understood more generally as a term for the full Christian service of worship. If, then, what we are truly wanting to understand is Christ-mass, the sacred celebration of the person of God who came into the world, then the true meaning of Christmas must be an encounter with the incarnation.
While not the most traditional Christmas text, the most beautiful description of the incarnation, in my humble opinion, comes from the New Testament letter to the Philippians (chapter 2, verses 3 through 8).
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.
This is the real meaning of Christmas. That God — who exists so far outside the human condition that to take on the form and likeness of humanity was to voluntarily enter into slavery — did just that. And, that once this humiliation was embraced it was further eclipsed by the denigration of a criminal execution. This biblical poem uses the term kenosis in the original language, which means emptying. Christ “emptied himself” on the very first Christmas night.
Now, emptiness is not a term that we often apply to Christmas. Christmas is much more associated with fullness. Full stomachs as we gorge on feasts that take hours of loving labor and mountains of ingredients to prepare. Full eyes and ears as our senses are washed over by tidal waves of sparkling lights, colorful decorations, radio jingles, and Christmas carols. Full schedules as we struggle to find the time to address Christmas cards, complete shopping and wrapping, and participate in all the extra social activities of the season. Full spaces as we wonder how to find places for all the new clothes, toys, and other gifts that add to our accumulation of possessions. Full hearts as we look at the glowing faces of our children, or are transported into nostalgic memories of our own childhoods, or simply appreciate the precious moments to be with those we love.
The Christmas season fills us up in so many ways, and many of those ways are wonderful. This is not an harangue against the blessed fullness that we, as modern, Western, 21st Century people receive from the celebration of Christmas. What I hope it is, is a reminder that fullness is not the meaning of Christmas. Appreciation of all the gifts in our lives – those under the tree, and those we see more clearly in the late days of December – is important. It is something I am trying to teach my children about Christmas. When I recently asked Princess Imagination why we give gifts on Christmas she answered beautifully that it is to remind us that Jesus is God’s gift to us. That’s true.
But we need to also remember that this gift was and is kenosis, self-emptying. In that birth in a stable, Jesus released the honor, and authority, and perfection, and privilege, and power that is imbued in being God. There could not be a more complete or dramatic gift, and this selflessness is the real meaning of Christmas.
I had gotten so far in composing this post two days ago. Then it was time to get myself and the kiddos ready for Christmas Eve service. In the course of that activity my trick back decided that the action of bending at the waist to pick-up the Gigglemonster’s shoes was a sin punishable by severe pain of the shooting-down-my-legs-and-up-my-spine-and-continuing-for-hours-at-a-time variety. That would have been bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that the Gigglemonster was so wound up in anticipation of the first Christmas where he could understand the upcoming barrage of presents that he only napped for about 40 minutes (as opposed to his usual 2 hours). As a result, the monster side of his personality was definitely dominant heading into the 4:30 service at my in-laws’ church. When he decided that it had to be Mommy who held him every time the congregation stood to sing a carol (I lost track at 5, but it may have been more times than that), and when my back declared that holding a 37 lb. boy while standing was a physical impossibility, things got ugly! I spent the majority of the service trying to shush him, and bribe him, and otherwise prevent a screaming tantrum, and the remainder taking him out to go to the bathroom and them experiencing the full force of the tantrum in the ladies room when I suggested that he did not actually have to strip naked to go pee.
Needless to say, Christmas Eve service was not a terribly worshipful experience for me this year. Nor was it an easy context in which I could put into practice my preceding reflections about self-emptying. I am unfortunately NOT one of those people who stoically copes with pain. Quite to the contrary, pain brings out every selfish and petulant inclination in my personality. My children’s whining, coincidentally, does the same. And so, fresh from my soulful contemplation of Christ’s self-emptying, I was confronted by the broken reality of just how full of myself I am. Full of my needs; full of my expectations; full of my own plans for how things should go. While I cannot even comprehend the power and perfection that Jesus voluntarily released, I am forced to confess that I grasp for such things. I try with all my effort to achieve them, and when circumstances, or back pain, or tired children interfere with these efforts I get annoyed or worse.
And so, I have these contrasting reflections to offer you all on what is now the day after Christmas. On the one hand, the Christmas example of self-emptying, on the other hand the fullness-seeking inclinations of my own heart. The contrast is all the more poignant to me because Jesus’ action of self-emptying subjected him to just the kinds of negative stimuli that make self-emptying so difficult to me. The kenosis meant taking on a body that was subject to physical pain, just like mine. The kenosis meant being in relationship with other people who would consider their own needs first, if not exclusively. The kenosis meant encountering personally and directly all of the things that I use as excuses for why I cannot really follow Christ’s example.
And that’s why I have to take seriously the call to have the same mind in myself that is in Christ Jesus. It’s not that Jesus just doesn’t understand or isn’t subject to the stresses I face. Jesus volunteered to face those stresses – that’s the whole point of Christmas. And so, in the 364 days until the next Christmas, I want to keep trying to empty myself. I know that in the moments I do, I will be more full than I am at any other time. For, I will be full of Christ and full of the true meaning of Christmas.