|Coptic Orthodox Nativity Ikon, courtesy of St. Joseph School for Boys Bookstore|
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. —Luke 2:12-14
Every year, sometime after Dad throws the one defective strand of icicle lights into the rubbish bin but before Uncle Jim locks himself in the bathroom in an eggnog-induced stupor, we are inevitably presented with the ambiguous trope known as "the true meaning of Christmas".
The true meaning of Christmas™ is always presented, and occasionally asked, with some sort of deep or emotive tone, as if we do not know the answer already. This, of course, is because Christmas has far deeper societal implications than merely going through the motions of Advent devotions and attending Mass. As I said last year, the trappings of the season make Jesus unavoidable, but we must add that those same trappings serve to confuse the event itself. A Christmas of glamour, not of God, is no Christmas at all.
G.K. Chesterton wryly observed this phenomenon in Christendom in Dublin, positing that Catholics can see a "Christian simplicity and charity" at the core of even the strangest ancient or Oriental emblems:
The more we are proud that the Bethlehem story is plain enough to be understood by the shepherds, and almost by the sheep, the more do we let ourselves go, in dark and gorgeous imaginative frescoes or pageants about the mystery and majesty of the Three Magian Kings. It has even some affinity with a sort of joke; by which we should find an intimate message from a friend slowly spelt out from old Egyptian hieroglyphics or Babylonian cuneiform.
Christmas is almost unbelievably simple, because the story is so utterly relatable. The idea that God Himself might be as we all were, might do as we all did, seems too good to be true, and He seems too good to be true. And yet, He is Truth.
The great trilemma of the nature of Christ was popularised by C.S. Lewis, although similar arguments predate the great Christian apologist. The trilemma is that Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. That is, He declared a great many things, not the least of which was that He was the Messiah through Whom one must be saved. So, if Jesus was not lying, but He was not right, then He was insane; if Jesus was lying knowingly, He was a swindler; but if He was neither lying nor wrong, then the gravity of His teachings go far beyond that of a mere "great moral teacher".
Christmas, then, must also be viewed through such a lens. Jesus would not begin His public ministry for another three decades, but the fundamental question as to the veracity of His story remains. If Christmas is to be more than mere bells and baubles, then it must be recognised for what it is: an actual historical event. We must not celebrate it just because it is a nice tradition but because it is a memorial for an actual occurrence. Christmas is no more about a tree and stockings than Easter is about eggs and rabbits. Those are all nice things, but they are not the thing. We must never mistake the saccharine for the simple.
Yet another trope that we hear at this time is "Jesus is the Reason for the Season". On its face, it is direct, and it is right. But still, it is ambiguous. Yes, Jesus is the reason why the world seems to stop and ponder, if only for a few weeks, Who God is, because we need constant reminders of the most obvious of answers, and that is why Christmas is so simple.
Jesus always existed. He did not come into being at His conception, but His conception made Him like us, so that we might comprehend that which could not be comprehended, if only in part. And what we can comprehend is that Jesus was a baby, like us.
He cried, like us.
He slept, like us.
He nursed at His mother's breast, like us.
And today, we remember and celebrate His birth as we would that of any of our friends.
The story of the Christ Child is not a children's story but a story for children — and these are very different things. To humble oneself as a child of God is the ultimate act of maturity, not because it is an act of ignorant obedience but because it is one of solemn acknowledgement that there is a Love that passes all knowledge and a Peace that passes all understanding.
It really is that simple, perhaps deceptively so. That, or rather, He is the true meaning of Christmas, and of life itself. O come, let us adore Him! Christ the Lord.
"The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why." —G.K. Chesterton, Generally Speaking