Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Essence of Christmas

What is the essence of Christmas? Most Christians would not hesitate to say it is the birth of Jesus, but surely Christmas is more than a religious birthday party. Those of non-Christian religious traditions look to the winter solstice for inspiration. They find spiritual significance in the change of seasons and the symbolism of light and darkness. Those of a secular mindset use the time to celebrate family, friends, food, community, and generosity.

I embrace all these facets of the season. I love that this solstice celebration has roots more ancient than Christianity. I do not begrudge the secularization of the holiday. I love the fact that Christmas has expanded beyond the Church. 

I even like Santa! I am not a culture warrior who promotes the use of the slogan “Merry Christmas” as a means to thumb my nose at those who do not share my religious beliefs. Such mean-spiritedness is a violation of the Christmas spirit.

As a Christian theologian I look to the gospel birth narratives for the reason for the season. As a practitioner of the historical-critical method, I am aware of the problems associated with taking these accounts as history. Yet the symbolism of the ancient stories is powerful. It never fails to fill me with awe every year. 

So what is the meaning of the season? It is transcendence. This is what the heavenly host and nativity star point to. There is a Reality beyond the mundane interpretations of human existence. Heaven and earth meet at Christmas.

It is beauty. Most people do not think of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a Christmas carol, but it is. “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea / With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.” Christmas is about transfiguration. I experience this every Christmas Eve as I sing Silent Night.

It is about immanence and incarnation. The Christmas story is very earthy. It is about pregnancy and childbirth in difficult circumstances. It is shepherds reeking of sheep and goats, kneeling before a newborn child, who has been laid in a feeding trough in a stable. I have often thought that only those who practice animal husbandry can really appreciate what Christmas is all about.

Most of all it is about mystery. Its meaning is beyond our knowing. It is about unknowing what we think we know. If we think Christmas is a rallying point for our team in opposition to other religious teams, then we have missed the point of the Wise Men coming to honor the Christ Child.

The Magi were likely Zoroastrian priests from Persia or possibly Nabateans from Arabia. Christmas is about a Spiritual Reality that cannot be contained within the confines of one religion. It is about the One who transcends religious differences, yet inspires them all.

The essence of Christmas? It is found deep within the human heart. Jesus taught, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” It is found in the hearts of other animals as well, hence the prominent place that nonhuman creatures play in biblical narratives and later Christmas traditions. That accounts for the popular image of the Peaceable Kingdom at Christmastime.

It is found in the heavens, which is the meaning of the Star of Bethlehem. It is found in children. The focus of Christmas is a newborn child. The Child of Bethlehem grew to be the Rabbi of Nazareth who said, “One must become like a little child to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus also taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” According to Jesus “neighbor” included Samaritans (who were considered heretics) and enemies. If you want to find the essence of Christmas, look to unconditional love - a love that conquers our fear of people who look and worship differently than us.

Look within the heart of your Jewish neighbor, Muslim neighbor, Hindu neighbor, Buddhist neighbor and Sikh neighbor. That is where Christmas is found. Look to Love that transcends religious boundaries. As the hymn says, “Love came down at Christmas.” That is the essence of Christmas.

“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people…. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward all!” 


  1. As an Interfaith minister I am always struck by the importance of Light in pretty much all faith traditions. With the solstice the light begins to return and with the Hope of Christmas we pray for the Light of the World to live in our hearts and heal our world. Thank you for your blogs

  2. This is inspirational in its repair of all the religious divisions, or walls even between denominations. You touch the places I needed to touch as Christmas s approaches. Thank you.


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