This Christmas season has not been an easy one for me. Here I am, Christmas Day, and I’m unemployed, with no idea when or whether I’ll find another job and barely enough money to get me through another month–and that’s after spending several weeks, a month or two ago, looking for work. Financially speaking, this has probably been the most difficult time of my life, and it hasn’t been terribly easy in other regards either: I’ve felt distant from loved ones often, have suffered a lot of fear and uncertainty about my future, and struggled against the crushing feeling that I am sinking back into a routine of life that is going nowhere and profiting me nothing. It has certainly not been a time of carefree joy and happy togetherness.
And yet, as all this has been going on, I have also been more deeply aware of the true meaning of Christmas than ever in my life before. “The true meaning of Christmas.” That’s a phrase that gets bandied about a lot nowadays, especially in those sappy “family films” that we all know and love (or hate, as the case may be). And yet, with all this talk, it seems that the meaning of Christmas is still surprisingly elusive. The modern world, by and large, takes that meaning to be as follows: Christmas is a time for giving, for being together with loved ones and reconciling your differences, for being magnanimous towards others and for spreading good cheer wherever you might find yourself. Then of course, there is the commercial side of it, fueled by that very spirit of giving but still all too often erupting into something unhealthy, dry, withered, and ugly. Those things are not bad things (not even commerce, if kept under control–after all, buying and selling brings prosperity!). Yet it seems to me that the secular modern (and all too often, even the religious) world’s understand of Christmas is like a person who looks at an empty house and mistakes it for a home. The soul is missing from the modern notion of Christmas.
So, what is the true meaning of Christmas? The things I listed before are not that meaning, but only its effects: they are a celebration for which the cause has been forgotten or pushed to the background. And that cause is the most profound event in history: that God Himself, the eternal, changeless being, the cause of all that is or ever shall be, the Infinite, Who know human can ever understand or comprehend, chose to become incarnate in human flesh; and what is more, in the flesh of a helpless baby, born of a human woman lowly in all respects save for the extraordinary graces that she was given. Let that sink in. God is infinite, immanent and yet transcendent; He took on a face. God is too vast to be named; He took on a name, and one as common as Jack or Bob, at that. God is all-powerful; he became a helpless baby, utterly dependent on His mother, so fragile that to be left alone for a day could have spelled His death. And He came so that we humans, the oath-breakers, who by right should be cast aside, might become adopted into God’s family and made brothers and sisters of Christ, flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone.
That is the mystery that we celebrate, the great paradox, the incredibly wondrous event which is at the heart of all the joyful outer trappings of Christmas. Christmas as we know it, with all those things that have come to be misidentified as its “true meaning,” would not exist without the Incarnation. The festival has become so great only by the power of faith which has borne it up all through the years; and even though the soul has gone out of it in so many places, that ancient wonder is still there holding it up, and will surely continue to do so as long as it is remembered.
Back to the beginning: this Christmas season has been pretty tough for me. But even in the most difficult times, there is still beauty to be found, and I think it is very fitting that I have seen the beauty of Christmas more strongly than ever before in this, my most difficult Christmas season to date.