During the Christmas season, practically the whole world celebrates the coming of Jesus Christ, including those who do not believe in Him. Non-Christian cultures have picked up the Western custom of putting up Christmas trees and giving each other presents, although they do not know why.
Hardened atheists are putting up holly (unwittingly symbolizing Christ's crown of thorns and the beads of His blood), going to shopping malls (where they are subject to "Away in the Manger" and "Silent Night" over the sound system), and feeling the joy of the holiday (despite their own beliefs).
And it is fitting that the Savior of the world be so honored. In the words of that Christmas text, John 1, the Word that was God became flesh, and though the world that He created did not know Him and most of the people to whom He came did not receive Him, His "grace and truth" prevails.
The Christmas season is a foretaste of what was promised: "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10-11).
Yes, Christmas has become a "secular holiday." Courts have proclaimed it such, so as to allow for Christmas vacations and holiday displays, as long as Menorahs and Santa Clauses balance out Nativity scenes. Some are indeed trying to keep Christ out of Christmas, but this is proving next to impossible.
The very name Christmas lifts up the name of Christ, and even in its most secular manifestations, Christmas is a testimony to Christ. At the heart of the way Christmas is celebrated is the receiving and giving of gifts.
One could hardly imagine a more apt practice to proclaim the meaning of Christmas, why the birth of Christ is such "good news," and how the Christian faith is so unique. Christianity itself is all about receiving and giving gifts.
God, as Christians know Him, is full of grace; that is to say, He is always bestowing gifts. Jesus Himself is a gift, all wrapped up in swaddling clothes. Salvation is not something we have to earn or deserve, but a gift, all wrapped up in the empty grave clothes of Jesus.
And God's gifts do not stop there. The Reformation theologians saw worship not in terms of our performance or even our praise but as the place in which we receive God's gifts. Namely, the gift of His Word--read, sung, studied, preached--and the gift of His sacraments, which convey the same good news of free forgiveness in the gift of Christ.
The Christian's life in the world is also all about God's gifts. Our families and everyone in them, both the family we were born into and the one we may establish ourselves, are understood as a gift of God. His creation is a gift. Our multiple vocations--not only in our church and family but in our work and our citizenship, in the talents God has given us, in the country into which we were born, in the people God has put into our lives--are gifts.
And, conversely, the way we live our lives in the world is to be a response to the gift of God. We are to carry out all of our vocations as a gift that we give to our neighbors. Now that we have received gifts, we give our gifts to others--to our family, our customers and co-workers, our fellow citizens.
Yes, but shouldn't we celebrate Christmas more in our hearts, rather than in the shopping malls? And shouldn't this holiday be reserved for Christians? And surely it has gotten way too materialistic.
There is truth in these complaints, living as we do in a sinful and still-fallen world. And yet, Christianity is above all an embodied religion. It is not just a mystical inner state. Christianity has a way of breaking out of the church to influence cultures. And it is very oriented to what is material.
What Christmas celebrates is the Incarnation of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who became a human being. The Word becomes flesh. The spiritual becomes material.
The Christian life too is not all about private meditation or spiritual exercises, but about living, concretely, where God has placed us. Our vocations are concrete, down-to-earth, and "material": our particular family, the workplace, the local church, the nation.
The buying and selling that characterizes Christmastime embodies the economic exchange by which God regulates vocation. And choosing a gift for someone--and paying its price--is just a shadow of what God has done and continues to do for each of us.