Returning Christ to Christmas

A lot of people make a big deal around this time of year about how Christ seems to be so often taken out of Christmas. “We need to get Christ back into Christmas,” Christians will say, feeling as though the terms “happy holidays” and “holiday trees” are a part of some sinister conspiracy to turn America into a completely godless nation.

This public outcry has intrigued—and even mildly amused—me for a while for a couple reasons. The first reason is because I usually don’t get stressed out about how another person or entity chooses to frame their opinion on religion. The goal of a retailer is to make money not influence people’s views on God. Similarly, their approach to God should, in no way, affect my views on God nor should I feel threatened when someone has a differing opinion on the matter. As long as I know what I believe, and I am free to express that view, there is no harm in having others take whatever view they choose. We live in a country that promotes and practices religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

The role of government in this whole issue is of a similar nature. The government’s job is not to promote religion in general or a particular religion specifically, but to protect the rights of all religions, be they Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or any of the other thousands of religions in America.

Does this mean that we should remove “in God we trust” from the dollar bill? I don’t know, but I am kind of ambivalent to the question. Not to sound insensitive, but who cares? Does taking “in God we trust” off the dollar bill somehow threaten my personal spirituality, my freedom to follow the dictates of my own conscience as it relates to God? Does it somehow neutralize our effectiveness in trying to encourage others to become followers of Christ? Conversion to Christ cannot be legislated. It happens when a person freely decides that He is worth responding to, unconstrained by external pressure.

The second reason I am intrigued and amused by the whole issue is because, ironically enough, it is actually Christians who have taken Christ out of Christmas.

How is this possible and what do I mean?

In the Gospel accounts, though the points of emphasis vary in places, the overall message is unified: God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, Matthew quotes the book of Isaiah in saying that Christ was the fulfillment of the prophecy, “And they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, ‘God with us'” (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14). On the other hand, John puts it this way, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Both of these messages declare the unequivocal truth that God was “with us” in the person of Jesus Christ. But not only that, He was so completely “with us” that He actually took on our flesh.

This is where many of us Christians err. We pay lip service to the idea that Christ really became one of us and that He really took our flesh. And by so doing, we rob ourselves of the fullness and power of Christmas.

I say this because we seem to have a misunderstanding of what it means for Christ to become “flesh.” The Greek word is sarx and in the New Testament it always refers to a person’s weakened humanity. This is the same flesh that Paul was frustrated by in Romans 7, saying, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (v. 18). It is what caused him to throw up his hands and say, a few verses later, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

The answer, of course, was a blessed thought for him: Jesus Christ could deliver him—but only as He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” thereby condemning “sin in the flesh” (8:3). Christ never sinned, of course, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that He was “in all points tempted as we are” (Hebrews 4:15).

Many Christians, on the other hand, propose that Christ did come in human flesh, but that it was some type of pseudo human flesh that was not plagued with the weaknesses that touch all humanity. This has led to erroneous—yet logically consistent—doctrines like the “immaculate conception,” which proposes that in order for Christ to be conceived free from the stain of sin, Mary likewise had to be immune from sin when she was conceived.

The problem with this idea is what logicians call an “infinite regress,”—in other words, where does it end? Wouldn’t that require Mary’s mother to be immaculately conceived, and her mother’s mother, all the way back to Eve?

The reason this whole issue is so important is because if we maintain that Christ was not truly plagued by our weakened humanity, it prevents Him from coming as far as He needs to come in order to be our Savior. Christ did not come to save sinless man, or give aid to perfect angels but to the “seed of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16). As Gregory of Nazianzus said in the fourth century, “That which [God] has not assumed He has not healed.” Thus, in order for Christ to be our Savior He needed to reach down to our level and truly become one of us. Again, this doesn’t mean He, Himself, sinned, but that He took on our sinful flesh—or, as Paul puts it, He became “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Saying that Christ did not take on our same flesh also prevents Him from coming as far as He needs to come as it relates to the encouragement He can give to us. The book of Hebrews is pretty clear that we can go to Jesus in our moments of weakness, loneliness, and temptation because He knows what we are going through. “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted,” the author writes, “He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). “Therefore,” he concludes, we can “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we might obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16).

So let’s truly return Christ to Christmas so that we can enjoy a full Savior!