I have always loved Christmas. But looking back over my life, it is interesting to think about what, exactly, I have loved about it. Like every middle-class first-world child, I suppose, when I was very young I liked all the excitement around presents – the anticipation, the tree, the night before, the excitement of the morning, the happiness of the giving but especially – of course! – the receiving!
Starting about when I was in junior high I started really appreciating the religious connections with the season, especially the midnight church service, in which I participated – in my Episcopal church – as an altar boy. Carrying the cross, being involved with the liturgy, singing the carols, finishing in the dark, with lighted candles in the standing-room-only crowd, softly singing Silent Night. Magical.
When I was a mid-teenager and had become a born-again Christian, I continued to enjoy all that (from the tree to the service to the gifts) but I acquired a deeper appreciation of the theology of it all and what it actually meant. It was about the incarnation of the Son of God. Christ loved the world so much that he became a human in order to share our humanity and, eventually, suffer death so that we might have life. The very thought of God becoming human was breath-taking, the creator of all that is becoming a helpless infant, becoming one of us, not for his own sake but purely for ours, was a breathtaking idea, deeply profound and life transforming.
But it was at this point in my life that the center of theological focus for me shifted from Christmas to Easter, or, rather, Good Friday. I never had the deep resonances with Easter morning that I had with Good Friday afternoon. It was on Good Friday that the Son of God sacrificed himself for the sins of the world, and that was what ultimately mattered – not the fact that he came to be rewarded for it three days later. Jesus’ death was the entire point of *everything*. It was the culmination of the history of salvation going back to Adam and Eve; it was the reason for the incarnation; it was the basis of my eternal life and therefore of my existence. Christmas continue to be nice and reverential, but the point was Good Friday.
There are many aspects of the Christian faith that I no longer admire or, even, respect. Few of these have to do with the idea of Christmas. Many of them do have to do with Good Friday. I no longer think of the sacrifice of the Son of God as a plausible or even acceptable idea. I don’t mean to be blasphemous in saying that. I know lots of very good Christian theologians – people who are the “thinkers of the faith” who are the incredibly intelligent philosophers of this religion – who think there is simply no way to salvage the traditional ideas of atonement.
The idea that God had to subject his son to humiliation and pain by having him tortured to death for the sake of others – what kind of barbarian idea is that? What would anyone today think if I told you that in order for me to forgive you for something you had done against me (say, lied about me; spread malicious gossip about me; stolen from me; physically abused me), in order for me to make things right between us, I had to have my son maliciously tortured and bloodily murdered? *Then* I could forgive you. You would think I was literally nuts. The idea that God required a bloody sacrifice of an innocent man in order to forgive others is deeply disturbing to me, now.
But that’s Good Friday. Christmas is a different story.
Christmas is all about a gift. God gave his son into the world to become a human. He became one of us. He shared our pains and miseries. He knows what it’s like.
I’ve realized that what I really like about the Christmas season is that it really is all about giving, and it’s about giving of oneself for the sake of others.
We all can do that. And when we do it, it is an act of grace.
I’ve thought a lot about grace over the past few years. Grace is when you receive something that you absolutely do not deserve, a good done to you by another at some sacrifice to themself. It’s not a reward. It’s not based on merit. It is an act of genuine love from one person to another, completely selfless, life-transforming.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience, but I have. It rarely happens in a big way (though I myself have experienced it, a few times in my life, in a big way). But it often does happen in small ways, if we look for them and appreciate them. It happens anytime we receive an act of kindness, however small. And it happens anytime we perform an act of kindness – not looking for a response (although that’s always nice to receive) – but doing it simply because we care for another, even a stranger, and want to do something that is pleasing and helpful to them.
Today I love Christmas because I see it as an act of grace. I don’t really think that there is a supernatural person up in heaven who decided from eternity past to send his son into the world. That’s the Christmas story, and for me, it is pure story. But it is a story of grace. A story of someone – or two someones, both God and his Son himself – acting on behalf of others, not for what they could get in return for it, but out of pure and self-less love. I love the story, not because I think it is literally true, but because I think it is how I want to live my life. I want to recognize moments of grace that happen to me, and as imperfectly as I do it, I want to try to be a source of grace for others.
I hope you have a lovely Christmas. I know it’s a hard time for many people. For many it is a seriously fraught occasion. But hopefully it can be a time when also you can sit back and detach yourself from the hard bits – the crass materialism, the cheesiness, the greed, the family tensions, the anxieties, the abysmal loneliness, and so on and on – and reflect on what is good about it. It is a celebration of grace.