Christmastime means different things to different people. To some, it’s precious because the family will all gather together. To others, it’s a fearful prospect because the family will all gather together! Some people rejoice in the nostalgia that surrounds Christmas, and remember especially their own happy childhood times. There’s wonder and joy, feasting and gladness and the giving and receiving of gifts; it is a good season to celebrate with friends and family. Other people’s experience is tinged with sadness as they remember people with whom they no longer share Christmas because of distance, family rift or death.
Often people see Christmas as “the season of goodwill” where past hurts are laid aside and estranged people are brought together, hopefully not in a “grin-and-bear-it” way, but with real forgiveness which buries the past and looks forward to the future. The reason for this is rooted in the story of Jesus, the Christ of Christ-mas. At the most traditional “Carols by Candlelight” services, the Bible readings tell the Bible’s story briefly but well. It begins with the fall of Adam, the rebellious decision of mankind to disobey God and to attempt to manage God’s world with no reference to its maker. The healthy relationship between God and people is destroyed; there is no way that imperfect and finite human beings can ever repair their relationship with God who is infinite and perfect. This is a massive problem.
Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah picks up the story; he says in 9:2, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” The people’s sin has led them further and further away from God, and they are in exile, experiencing His judgment, not His favour. There is no way out. Suddenly, a great light appears. And what is that light? Isaiah tells us in 9:6; “To us a child is born, to us a Son is given … He will be called … Prince of Peace.”
The birth of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas is the moment when God came to dwell amongst us to bring light into the darkness and to reconcile us to Himself. God, who we have wronged by our pride, has offered to forgive us and make us His beloved children. Some people jump at this chance; they recognise their lives are not perfect, they know they need forgiveness and they embrace Jesus with glad hearts like a shipwrecked sailor grasping at a life-ring. Others are not convinced; the way they see things, they are perfectly good enough for God (if he even exists), so they pay little attention to Jesus, like a shipwrecked sailor hiding from the lifeboat crew as they survey the wreckage of his boat.
We tend to think Christmas is about presents and time with those we love, but it’s actually about reconciliation and forgiveness. First, it is about God’s reconciliation with and forgiveness of those who have failed to love him. Following on from and flowing out of that, it becomes a season in which people can be reconciled to one another. How does our celebration of Christmas bear witness to either of these things?