What if, instead of celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, we were celebrating today the Feast of the Incarnation? What difference would there be in our attitudes, our thoughts, our focus, and our celebrations?
We talk a lot about the true meaning of Christmas, and we deplore the commercialism and secularization of what should be a joyful celebration of our Savior’s birth. We teach children the meaning of giving, taking them with us to prepare and deliver gifts and food to families in need, and we tell them marvelous stories about the greatest gift of all. We serve meals to the homeless and take them warm clothing. At our best, we rejoice in our families and friends, sharing meals and laughter and love. At our worst, we wear ourselves out with frantic activity and become frustrated and quarrelsome. And too many of us watch all this activity from the outside, alone in the midst of a family holiday.
But I think that even giving and sharing and loving is not the true meaning of Christmas. What actually happened at Christmas? To make the story comprehensible, to put it in a form we can understand, Christians down the ages have told the story in terms of a gift given to us by God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16) We are sinners, fallen beings. We’re told that God sent his son to us as a baby in a manger, a sign, a lesson, an example. A gift. And by that gift we are saved. So it is fitting that we offer him our own gifts of love and devotion and service to others. But there is more to Christmas than the conventional Christian interpretation.
There is a deeper meaning, a more mysterious wonder, in Christmas. We glimpse that mystery in the shadows of candlelight, in the stars on a clear, cold night. When we light the Christ candle. When we sing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Beyond the metaphors of the virgin birth, the shepherds, and the wise men, beyond the fully human baby, beyond the hope of salvation and the promise of life, there is the mystery of the Incarnation. Godself became flesh and dwelt among us – dwells among us still. God with us.
When we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, we celebrate the humanness of Jesus. We marvel that the Word of God, God’s very self, could become a powerless baby laid in a feeding trough for lack of a crib. And we celebrate Jesus’ human identity that draws us closer to him and invites us to call him brother as well as Lord. We need that sense of Jesus’ humanity. We need him in the flesh, suffering with us, providing us with the model of what it is to be fully human.
But Jesus is not only fully human. He is also fully divine, God’s own self come to us in a form we can understand and accept. Jesus is the power that created the universe, glory beyond imagining, love that knows no limits. The most amazing thing about Christmas is that God chose in the freedom of God’s love to take on the limits of humankind, to become one with us. That mystery of light and power chose to take on a puny human form, to become fully a man, with all the weakness and limits of a human, to be fully with us and to suffer all the very deepest suffering we can undergo, purely out of love for us. What could be more shocking, more amazing, more mysterious?
If we were to celebrate the Incarnation rather than the birth of the Christ-child, our focus would be on the mystery of the Incarnation. Our celebrations would turn into observances of wonder and adoration. Instead of carols telling the story of the baby in the manger, we might sing the Magnificat of Mary and anthems about the message of the angels to the shepherds. Instead of the second chapter of Luke, we might read the first chapter of John. Instead of gifts chosen to delight the recipient, we might give symbolic gifts such as those brought by the Wise Men. After all, gold and frankincense and myrrh are of no earthly use to a baby, but they do symbolize the most precious things the Wise Men could offer incarnate divinity, symbolizing kingship, worship, and sacrificial death. In the Feast of the Incarnation, we might offer such gifts to God, and to one another gifts of candles, incense, and acts of love and peace. Instead of feasts of turkey or roast beef or ham with all the lavish accompaniments we now savor, we might share dishes that symbolize unity, humility, and dedication. Most important of all, we would focus our observances on the continuing presence of Emmanuel, God with us.
When God took on human flesh and came to share our lives, it wasn’t a thirty-year visit. God’s presence within us is permanent, and the Incarnation is the sign of that presence. God is transcendent, divine, above and beyond all imagining. God is the mystery beyond mysteries, the infinitely unknowable. But God is also within each of us, with us in every way, whether we know it or not. God who created the universe is also the one who knew life as only a human can know it, the baby in the manger, the dying one on the cross. God became human, put on human flesh, so that we would learn to know God’s presence with us and begin to understand God’s love that encompasses us. What a wondrous gift this is, and what a mystery!
In the end, we need to celebrate both the humanness of Jesus and his divinity. We need the baby in the manger and the mystery of the Incarnation. We need our brother Jesus in our lives, and we need an awareness of the transcendent power of the Creator. We need Godself in all of God’s persons, all of God’s ways. And whenever we begin to think we finally understand Christmas, we need to be shocked and amazed again, with the shepherds, at the overwhelming mystery of the Incarnation.