One fairly often hears phrases like “the real meaning of Christmas” or “what Christmas is really about” and this is almost always not eating and drinking too much and spending more money than one can afford on gifts. What this “real meaning” is varies somewhat: it can be about whatever the speaker/writer believes to be “the gospel”; it can be a vaguer idea of goodness and altruism; sometimes it’s connected to family.
I’m not sure about any of this, though. It seems to me that the real meaning of Christmas must be the things most associated with it; this must mean carols and other matters to do with the birth of Jesus but also feasting with one’s family and not doing much else for a few days.
What links feasting, family, and Jesus? The incarnational aspect of Jesus’ redeeming work. There are strong reasons to focus on the cross when thinking about Jesus but it is possible to argue that a good part of the work of salvation was done simply by being born (if one accepts the idea that the baby Jesus was already the Messiah, as the Christmas story asserts).
The problem to be resolved for humanity is our self-imposed separation from God. This separation is constituted by our disobedience. When Adam and Eve defy God’s commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they bring disaster upon themselves. In disobeying God in order to become independent of God they condemn themselves to isolation from the inner meaning of their existence and that of the world they inhabit.
Creation makes no sense, has no sense, without the creator. In seeking to be themselves the source of meaning human beings cut themselves off from what makes meaning possible. Our lives, in our attempt to be self-sufficient, our incoherent and chaotic because the ground of any possible order and harmony is what we are fleeing. Only in recognising and accepting our dependence are we able to become what we really are.
The radical nature of this existential problem (we are, in ourselves, worthless, valueless and meaningless) is what makes it so difficult to deal with. We can’t find or create a solution since the solution is utterly beyond our power.
This is why we need God to solve it for us. We are intrinsically incapable of solving it. We cannot give what we do not possess.
On the other hand God can’t simply impose a solution from outside creation. Our obedience, our alignment to God’s intention for us, has to come from our side. Why this is is (in my experience) easy to intuit and very difficult to articulate. The most common route is via the idea that somehow “freedom” is essential to the unique place of human beings in creation as “the image of God”. This feels both right and wrong to me, but it may be the best we can do.
Anyway on this basis the achievement of a new and redeemed relationship between God and human beings is the incarnation, the existence of a person who is at once a human being, just like the rest of us, and God. In Jesus God establishes a new relationship not just with us but with all creation and at the same time Jesus enables us to be the other side of this new relationship. In him a new way of God and the created order being together is put in place.
The point I’m trying to make is that this work may be completed on the cross but a lot of it is already done as soon as he exists. Jesus mission, death and resurrection can be seen as the working out of something already implicit in the birth.
This Christological detour has some implications for how we view the Christmas celebrations. Our human being is affirmed and redeemed in all its parts by the advent of Christ, and this without any particular deeds or efforts by human beings (unless one counts Mary’s willing submission to God’s will).
This when, at Christmas, we indulge our human appetites, eating and drinking, resting and relaxing,, we do so in the light of God’s affirmation of these appetites and the nature within which they are set.
God’s action in Jesus transforms the way in which our human nature relates to God’s nature. It blesses our earthly being in a total and all-encompassing way. This is reflected in Jesus’ (admiring) rejection of John the Baptist’s asceticism. John denies and suppresses the pleasures of the flesh while Jesus affirms and even indulges them.
This isn’t license for a permanent state of gluttony and drunkenness but the possibility of enjoyment of the senses with the approval of God certainly does follow.
It is in this sense that I think our eating and drinking do come close to the real meaning of Christmas. This meaning is that it is now, once again, alright to be simply human. We don’t need to try to justify ourselves, something we could never have done anyway. Our justification is simply that God made us and made us for God’s purposes. In so doing he made us as we were supposed to be. We don’t need to be different or better than we are, we just need to accept that our meaning, our goodness, our purpose is not ours, but God’s.
We serve God’s will, which will ever be to some degree inscrutable to us. We will never understand ourselves or our purposes, we will never know good and evil. To serve God we have to be what God intends us to be, which is what we are. Part of this is eating, drinking and being merry (maybe this is even the best part).