Christmas can be a bewildering time of year, where everything we think we know gets turned on its head. Trees are uprooted from forests and planted indoors; Starbucks swaps their customary white cups for a festive shade of red; and rather than complaining about TV adverts – as we do most of the year round – we all flock to YouTube, where we voluntarily give supermarkets 2 minutes of our time, drinking in their latest attempt to elicit tears from our eyes and money from our wallets!
It’s madness, I tell you!
But the unsettling nature of Christmas goes deeper than our peculiar festive practices. Christmas challenges many of the ways in which we’ve come to see the world.
I don’t know how, why or when it happened, but at some point we humans got strangely good at dichotomising this world – dividing it into polar opposites:
The material and the spiritual
The sacred and the secular
Christmas blows apart these distinctions, rendering them unusable. Because in a stable in Bethlehem, a humble place became a holy place. The spiritual became material. God became man. And nothing has been the same since.
This moment is what theologians call the ‘incarnation’ – when God took on a human form and walked amongst mankind. (You know how chilli con carne means ‘chilli with meat’? Yep, God in-carn-ate means, quite literally, God in meat! Think of that next time you eat Mexican!)
The incarnation means that we simply cannot divide the world up into the ‘spiritual’ and ‘unspiritual’ any longer. We cannot say that living, breathing, eating, thinking, walking, sitting, standing, talking, working are ‘unspiritual’ things that God is uninterested in. God came and did them Himself.
The Christmas story teaches us that there are moments when the divine breaks into the everyday; where the miraculous meets the mundane. And it tells us that God cares deeply about every part of our lives.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it,
No priest, no theologian stood at the cradle of Bethlehem. And yet, all Christian theology finds its beginnings in the miracle of miracles, that God became human.
This Christmas, churches all round the world will be running carol services, which are great places to explore some of the implications of this idea; that God entered into our world to be close to us. Whether this is a familiar idea to you, or one you’re trying to grasp for the first time, maybe attending one of these services will provide fresh opportunities for you to consider the challenge of Christmas. And if you happen to live in London and want one to attend, may I recommend this one at my church, ChristChurch London. It would be great to see you there.