For many people today, Christmas is mainly a special time of family togetherness. That’s mostly what I got out of Christmas as a young boy. It wasn’t until I became a Christian as a young man that I understood what Christmas was really about.
Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy the family part of Christmas, though not as much now that my children are grown. Of all the Christmases I have experienced I especially remember Christmas 1989. Only two of my 3 children were born at that time. Toys and toy parts were everywhere. It was about 2pm; the kids were happy and occupied; and I enjoyed being the master of all I surveyed in my 1,000 square foot home in Denver, Colorado.
Then the phone rang. It was the wife of one of the young couples in the church I pastored. She had gotten a phone call to come to the county morgue to identify the remains of what they thought was her husband. She asked me if I could go with her. When we arrived, the attendant took us to a wall with a window in it with drawn blinds. In the room on the other side of that window was the man she had been asked to come identify. Someone opened the blinds and there he lay on the gurney. Yes, it was her husband. The police had found him in a ravine in the Colorado mountains. Apparently, he had lost control of his car and plunged down a steep slope. He was killed when he was thrown from his car.
The feeling was terrible, empty, as barren as the room where her husband lay. Here standing in the morgue on Christmas day was a young woman, staring in disbelief at her dead husband, with a small child waiting for her back at her mother’s. I have no idea of all the thoughts that must have swept through her mind in those moments, but I’m sure she felt a great weight and grief.
I have just described two very different pictures of a Christmas day long ago. The images come together for me now and cause me to think of a Christmas day 2,000 years ago and ask anew: What is the true meaning of Christmas? I believe God’s plan for Christmas began with images similar to that of a young wife and mother standing in a morgue staring at her dead husband and contemplating the emptiness of her life at that moment. For when Christmas day was conceived in God’s mind, it was spawned not by thoughts of happy children playing on the floor, warm and safe in their suburban home. Instead, it was spawned by thoughts of human pain, the tragedy of sin, and the penalty of eternal judgment.
Today, when I think about the meaning of Christmas and what really moved God to take on the form of a man and die for people who had no interest or even thought of Him, I think of a God who has permanently entered my existence to rescue me. For Jesus will always and forever be the God-Man—fully God and fully human, knowing both the glory of heaven and the pain of a fallen world. When I consider that this was the price God paid for me and all people, I come to understand some things about God that fill my heart with hope and confidence, even in the face of tragedies. Here are just a few:
First, God understands our plight. Not just intellectually. He witnessed and experienced first-hand the pain of the fallen human condition. God was not a sideline spectator, rooting on a participant in the game of life. He rolled up His deity and tucked it deeply inside a body of flesh and lived among us. He knows what it means to lose friends, to be lied to, despised, hurt, and everything else that goes with life in this fallen world.
Second, God cares about our plight. He doesn’t just know what it’s like here on earth. He is deeply affected by it. The penalty and the prospect of the judgment of sin moved God to send His only son to take on human flesh. I am reminded of the death of Lazarus in John, chapter 11. We are told that as Jesus entered the room where Lazarus lay dead, He wept. Those who witnessed Jesus weeping believed that He was crying because He was so saddened to have lost a good friend. But this can’t be the reason why Jesus was weeping. After all, he waited for Lazarus to die before He went to him. He even knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. He could have prevented this death, but He didn’t. I think we need to look more closely at this event to understand what was really going on in Jesus’ mind at that moment. When Jesus came to Bethany, the people were wailing. The grief was clearly thick in that place. It wasn’t only for Lazarus that Jesus wept. I believe He wept over the whole tragic scene. It mattered to Him that these people He loved were so consumed by grief.
Third, God helps us in our plight. Christmas reminds me that God does more than say He understands and cares about our situation. He does something about it. For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only son. He didn’t do this because He loves Himself. He didn’t do it for ego sake. He did it because He loves us, even as sinners. It wasn’t ego and the prospect of praise that brought Jesus to the cross; it was His love for fallen human beings who were in desperate need and could only be helped by an act of great, selfless sacrifice. He counted the cost and willingly came to our aid.
So, on that distant hillside in Israel, as shepherds watched their flocks by night, angels appeared and declared this good news of great joy for all people, when God took on the form of man and gave us His great free gift. This gift is not only the wonderful promise of eternal life. It is also the assurance that the God of all creation draws near to a weak, suffering, and oftentimes, fearful people and gives us rest and fills our questioning hearts and minds with the comforting reality that all things are possible with Him. Even a wife bereft of her husband and a father for her little boy can find in God a peace to sustain and encourage her. She can know a companion who will walk alongside her, a friend to speak words of comfort to her aching soul, and a father for her son, who would walk every step of every day with them both. And so He was, in the years to come, all of this and more to that little broken family.
So, on this Christmas, let us celebrate, not only the wonder of the miracle of the Savior’s birth but also the goodness of this God who has revealed Himself to us as Love through the person of Jesus Christ.