Christmas is the time of year Christians traditionally celebrate the birth of Emmanuel—God with us—a birth which was but the beginning of the long road that led to His victorious declaration over the power of sin, “It is finished,” thirty-three years later on the cross. But what, really, is Christmas? What have many of us allowed it to evolve into? Most importantly, what ought it be for those who still worship Him?
“(Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?”
There is disagreement among scholars as to the meaning of today’s verse, the issue being primarily over the words translated “lower parts of the earth.” Vines Expository Dictionary tells us, “…two of the various interpretations of this phrase are (1) that the earth is in view in contrast to heaven, (2) that the region is that of Hades, the Sheol of the OT,” and concludes that the second meaning is correct.
Thayer’s Lexicon, on the other hand, says, ““…Eph. lv. 9, which many understand of Christ’s descent into Hades… But the mention of this fact is at variance with the connection. Paul is endeavoring to show that the passage he has just before quoted, Ps. lxvii. (lxviii.) 19, must be understood of Christ, not of God, because ‘an ascent into heaven’ necessarily presupposes a descent to earth (which was made by Christ in the incarnation) whereas God does not leave his abode in heaven. Accordingly… [the original Greek] denotes the lower parts of the universe, which the earth constitutes…”
Regardless of which is the intended meaning of this particular verse, Christ did indeed descend to earth to be born a human baby, and that is what we celebrate at Christmas. But what is the significance of this, and why should it matter two thousand years later?
The truth is that, to many people, it doesn’t matter. The natural bent of humankind is to pull away from God. This is the sin nature we inherited from our forefather Adam, and this tendency is quite evident in many people today. From Frosty the Snowman to Rudolph and Santa, countless children’s stories have been created to obscure the significance of the day. And while it isn’t that fiction is bad, the risks we run when we veer away from the reason for this holiday are several.
The first danger in digressing from Christ at this season is to our children. Children are gullible; witness the many little ones waiting for their goodies from Santa. Yet it is frequently the same person who tells their child about both Santa and the Baby Jesus; when they mature and realize Santa was a fable, will they not be tempted to conclude that so was Jesus?
The second danger in taking our eyes off of the “reason for the season” is that we run the risk of losing an incredible teaching moment. There are only so many hours in a day and so many impressionable moments in a childhood; if Christ is important—and He is (or should be) the most important reality of our entire lives—should we not actually spend Christmas time telling our children why we celebrate this holiday? Should we not tell them that we give gifts because He gave us the greatest gift—forgiveness of our guilt before God, the power to choose to avoid sin, and the hope of an eternity completely untainted by wrongdoing? Without sounding like The Grinch, should not Christmas be a sacred holiday, instead of just another opportunity to “be merry” and “deck the halls?”
Another risk we run when we allow merchandisers and secularists to obscure the true meaning of Christmas is that we become distracted ourselves. We may still vaguely remember that Christmas should rightly be about Christ, but when we allow ourselves to reduce it to frivolity, presents, and kiddie stories, we and our families become discontent and burned out, because something inside of us intuitively recognizes that we are exerting an awful lot of effort for something that does not really matter.
Lastly, and some might argue most importantly, we risk failing to witness Christ when we allow ourselves to be pressed into the secular mold. It certainly is difficult to swim against the flow, but take a mother salmon. Against incredible odds, God gave her the instinct to swim upstream to lay her eggs where she herself hatched, and she fulfills the purpose for which she was created beautifully. The purpose for which we were created is to bring glory to God. But do we?
We do not glorify His name and reflect Him to an increasingly secular culture when we allow ourselves to be swayed by its pull. Second Timothy 2:7-8 tells us, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord…” Moreover, Christ Himself warned, “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:26) We absolutely must not be ashamed of Christ! Jesus also said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16) Salt is a preservative; in the same way, Christians are a preserving element in our decaying culture. We cannot afford to be silent, because it is when we live rightly and are not ashamed to speak up and give credit to the true Source that others are exposed to the Light!
Christmas is a distinctly Christian holiday. And while its celebration was not commanded in Scripture, as followers of the true God, we are to make the most of every opportunity God affords us. 2 Timothy 4:1-2 commands, “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season [at all times]. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” While not all of us are preachers, we all must be ready to do what we can to point others to Christ whenever the opportunity presents itself.
So how can we bring the focus back to Christ at Christmas time? The answers to this will be as varied as the individuals Christ calls. How you honor Christ at Christmas is a reflection of His Spirit in you. One of the ways our family tried to honor Christ this year was by designing postcards from Vistaprint.com with verses from John 1 and 3 and the heading “Christmas is Christ” on them. The important thing is not that we be spectacular, but that we make an attempt to redirect the culture our lives touch back to God, who ought to be the center not only of our Christmas celebrations, but also of our entire lives!
Thank You that with or without us, You are spectacular. That is why the multitudes of angels sang at Your birth; that is why all of the created natural world points to You and brings You glory. Help us not fail to bring You glory either! Thank You that You condescended to come to us as a human being to take away the sin that hung over us and separated us from fellowship with You. Help us celebrate Christmas rightly, this year and always! Amen.