Form and Substance
One of the dominant themes in the Bible is the problem of looking at things instead of looking through things. In other words, the tendency is to focus on the form instead of seeing the substance of things through the form. Celebrating Christmas can function in the same way. You can look at all the pretty wrapped gifts under the tree without ever seeing the message for your life through them. You can look at all the characters worshipping baby Jesus in the manger scene without ever seeing the message for your life through them. What if, instead of focusing on keeping Christ in Christmas in form, God wanted you to see the theology of Christmas in substance? What if God intended to communicate a message in Christmas that was meant to break into the mundane moments of everyday life, every day of the year? If so, how do you look through the holiday trimmings and find the practical theology of Christmas?
Giving and Receiving
In the popular Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, the story follows the life of George Bailey who is stuck working at the Bailey Building and Loan, giving all of his time and resources to help the people of Bedford Falls. He dreams of one day leaving town for a life that “really matters.” Just when things look like they’re going well for George, his partner loses all of the bank’s money, which causes George to wish he’d never been born. An angel named Clarence grants George his wish, and suddenly George sees everything he’s known change for the worst. The people and town he had worked so hard to help and preserve were now broke and run over with greed. George realized that what he gave away was actually what made his life really matter. He is given his old life back, and George returns full of joy and a new appreciation for life. The movie ends with George’s brother toasting to him as “the richest man in town.”
The story of George Bailey picks up on the Christmas theme of giving and receiving. It reminds us that the way to receive a rich life is by giving it away. After all, Christmas is a celebration of God’s love demonstrated in giving his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him would not perish but receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life (John 3:16). Likewise, your gifts under the tree should be an extension of your love for others, not a way to “buy” someone else’s love. In this we are also giving a present to Jesus who said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, my brothers, you’ve done unto me” (Matt.25:40). Furthermore, the presents under the tree and the joy of those who open them should be a reminder to cheerfully and daily give yourself away to befriend the lonely, serve the needy, and build up Christ’s church in a way that reflects the generous God of the gospel.
Humility and Power
Christmas is also the celebration of Immanuel, which means “God with us.” The holy God became a lowly man in Jesus Christ. This is what’s called the Incarnation and is captured by the manger scene where the wonder and worship of God is all directed towards a tiny little baby. Could anything be more mysterious and meaningful? Think of it – the God and King of all creation was now nursing in humility from a common Jewish maiden. As Ken Mire put it, “Where you would have expected angels, there were only flies. Where you would have expected heads of state, there were only donkeys … and thus, in the little town of Bethlehem, that one silent night, the royal birth of God’s Son tiptoed quietly by as the world slept.”
The manger scene should be a window through which you see that the way to ascend to true power is to first descend in true humility. The way to be truly great is to stoop low and serve. The message of Christmas is a message of humility and power. There is no power in “the spirit of Christmas,” but there is great power in the Spirit of God. As Pastor Douglas Wilson said, “Christmas is a holiday to be celebrated in the Spirit, but it is not a substitution for the Spirit.” The cute figurine of baby Jesus in the manger does not have any power of it’s own, but the Spirit of God sure does. All the Christmas songs, movies and manger scenes cannot produce a spirit of Christ-like humility, only God can do that by his Spirit. Jesus was born to die in humility so that his people would be born again to live in humility. Christmas is not about holding tightly to your rights in a spirit of bitterness, it’s about losing your rights in a spirit of humility for the sake of others’ spiritual good. Instead of being overly concerned with the right forms of Christmas, what would it look like if more people were concerned with living out the right theology of Christmas? Keep the forms that help you see Christ, and “Keep Christ in Christmas,” but more importantly, keep the theology of Christmas ringing out each day of the year through humbly serving and giving your life away to others.