One of my fondest Christmas memories is one that, at the time, seemed like a complete disaster. My mom was down with the flu and could hardly get out of bed, much less make the holiday meal she was planning to make. My dad, a pastor, had a funeral the morning of Christmas Eve, besides two evening services, and didn’t have time to make anything for us either. So after the funeral we ended up at Taco Bell for our Christmas Eve dinner, my dad wearing his clerical collar and my brothers and I in our play clothes.
We still joke about that Christmas, and how people must have thought my dad was a priest taking some underprivileged urchins out for a “gourmet” meal on Christmas Eve. At the time we kids complained, but now we laugh about it and retell the story every Christmas. That Christmas was hardly perfect by outward standards, but for that matter, neither was the first Christmas. An unfamiliar town? A stable? Dirty, smelly shepherds? I’m sure Mary would much rather have been at home in Nazareth, surrounded by her mother and family for the birth of her baby. But that was the way God chose to send His Son into the world, and it was absolutely perfect. Because Christmas isn’t about pomp and pageantry. It’s not about the gifts or the feast or how many people are in church. Christmas is all about God’s grace.
Let’s face it. Christmas is stressful. Although we may lament about how commercialized or secularized the holiday has become, there’s little we can do to change that in our society overall. Every year I vow I’m going to “slow down” and enjoy the beautiful season of Advent, but before you know it I’m sucked right back into the mad dash toward Christmas. December is a frenzy to buy presents and attend parties and decorate and bake and send cards and plan children’s Christmas programs and… Sigh. You know the feeling, don’t you? It’s all too easy to get stressed out, to snap at your kids or your parents or that nosy aunt who has an opinion on everything. You may find yourself burned out and even a little bit jaded about Christmas. We all *know* Christmas is about Christ, but how, exactly, does one put that into practice? Let’s look to God’s Word to answer that for us.
Titus 2:11-14 may not be the first Scripture that comes to mind when thinking about Christmas, but it’s the appointed Epistle reading for the Christmas Midnight service in the lectionary. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,” Titus 2:11 states. Pastor and first LCMS president C.F.W. Walther says of this text that “grace is both the theme and the entire content of the Christmas message.” So what is “grace,” exactly? Put simply, it is God giving us what we don’t deserve. We didn’t ask for a Savior. We didn’t deserve a Savior. But God, in His grace, sent His Son nonetheless. The Greek word for “grace” is charis, which has a slightly different nuance than the English word. There’s the added implication of “leaning towards.” God leans toward us, even when we turn our backs on Him, wanting nothing to do with Him. He freely extends Himself to get us back to Him. Freely extends. Hmm. That sounds almost like… Good Friday? Exactly. On Good Friday, Jesus was extended upon the cross for the sins of the whole world, which brings us right back to Titus 2:11 with God bringing salvation for all people. The Christmas message would mean nothing without the Easter promise. Turning again to Walther, we read, “What happened in Bethlehem was the fulfillment of the eternal decree of the Heavenly Father. As soon as His Son became man, the unbearable burden of all humanity’s sin was laid upon Him. And so, as Christ, God’s sacrificial Lamb for the sins of the whole world, lay in a hard crib in the dark stable, the eyes of God looked into the future to see His Son already dying on the cross. Therefore, this atonement for sins, by which God’s offended holiness and righteousness were satisfied and men were reconciled to Him, was already as good as accomplished.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, that’s what Christmas is all about. God’s gift of salvation, brought to us in the humble form of a newborn. God reconciling us to Himself through His Son. How will this beautiful message affect your Christmas celebration? Are there people with whom you need to be reconciled? Take the first step, even if the other party is the one who wronged you. God doesn’t ask of His children what He hasn’t first modeled. He sent Jesus to us when we were dead in our trespasses. Do you find yourself “keeping score” with the number and/or value of gifts? Release yourself from that burden. Remember, through Christ “God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them,” as 2 Corinthians 5:19 states. If God doesn’t keep score, neither ought we. Rather, our gift exchange should remind us of the Great Exchange, where Jesus took our sin upon Himself and gave us His righteousness. Do you get so busy and stressed out that you don’t have time for devotions or worship? Pray that God would show you areas where you can cut back. Maybe you don’t absolutely need to send a Christmas letter this year. Maybe you don’t have to bake ten different kinds of cookies for the extended family gathering. And maybe, just maybe, that’s part of the reason God chose such humble circumstances for the First Christmas–to show us that it’s not about the surroundings or the family gathering or the fancy meal or the decorations or the mounds of gifts under the tree. It’s about One very special gift to all people of all times. It’s about Jesus, the gift of grace.
O Jesus Christ,
Thy manger is
My paradise at which my soul reclineth.
For there, O Lord,
Doth lie the Word
Made flesh for us; herein Thy grace forth shineth.
(LSB 372,v 1)
Photo is A Blessed Birth by Carol VanHook