We are again at the brink of Christmas! How soon yet another opportunity has come to us to think about the deeper meaning of Christmas! An appropriate verse for our reflection that comes to my mind is 1 John 1:1-4:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.
These verses teach us that Christmas is neither only a doctrine nor only history but both! This is what I would like to explore with you.
A. Christmas is Doctrinal
What do I mean by “doctrinal”? I used the word doctrinal on purpose. I know it is a negative word. It is part of a family of words that have negative connotations. Doctrine or dogma connotes being narrow, being rigid or closed. It is bad to be closed. It is bad to be haughty. It is bad to not be open to reason. It is bad not to listen to others. But in our fear of being doctrinaire, we are not frank, we are not honest, about the fact we are all doctrinal.
A doctrine is a belief we base our lives on, and it is something we contend for, we insist on. In other words, a doctrine first of all is a faith position. It is not something we can prove scientifically. It is not something we prove empirically. Secondly, it is something we live on, we commit ourselves to, we base our lives on. And thirdly, it is something we push, we contend with other people over. That is a doctrine. And even though we should not be doctrinaire, we are all doctrinal.
Let us try not to be doctrinaire. But we cannot avoid being doctrinal. Everybody has faith assumptions about God, about eternity, about human nature, about moral truth. We bet our lives on them and press for them, and there is no way to avoid being doctrinal.
Christmas is doctrinal. The text says the invisible has become visible, the incorporeal has become corporeal. In other words, God has become human. The absolute has become particular. The ideal has become real. The divine has taken up a human nature. This is not only a specific doctrine, but it is also unique. Doctrine always distinguishes us. One of the reasons we are afraid to talk about doctrine is because it distinguishes us from others. Here is why the doctrine of Christmas is unique.
On the one hand we have got religions that say God is so imminent in all things that incarnation is normal. If you are a Buddhist or Hindu, God is imminent in everything. God is the divine spark in everything, and therefore incarnation is normal. God is incarnate in all sorts of people and things. Christians say Jesus is the God. On the other hand, the family of religions like Islam and Judaism says God is so transcendent over all things that incarnation is impossible. Jesus as God is blasphemous.
But Christianity is unique. It does not say incarnation is normal, but it does not say it is impossible. It says God is so imminent that it is possible, but God is so transcendent that the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is an event. Christianity has a unique view on this that sets it apart from everything else.
B. Christmas is Historical
Christmas is not just doctrinal; it is also historical. Look at what John says: we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
Here is what he is saying: When we give you these accounts of Jesus walking on the water, of Jesus rising from the dead, of Jesus speaking these words, these are not legends. These are not things we made up. These are not wonderful spiritual parables. These are things we saw. We saw him do this. We heard him do this. We felt him do this.
In other words, the doctrine of Christmas is that God became historical. The manger, the resurrection, the story of Jesus is not just a story. It is true. It actually happened in history. The doctrine of Christmas is that Jesus came. If he did not come, the story of Christmas is one more moral paradigm to crush us. If Jesus did not come, I would not want to be anywhere around these Christmas stories that say we need to be sacrificing, we need to be humble, we need to be loving. All that will do is crush us into the ground, because if it is not true that John saw him, heard him, felt him, that Jesus really came to do these things, then Christmas is depressing.
Every year we see stories in newspapers saying Christmas is the time of year for depression. It is, but not if you believe these first two verses, not if you understand Christmas is not just an inspiring story we can live up to, but it is both doctrinal and historical.
Christmas is both doctrine and history. May the reality of Christmas govern and direct our thoughts, words and actions as we celebrate Christmas once again!
The Bible Society of India