Daily Meditations

Christmas Advent: The Thirty-Sixth Day

CHRISTMAS DAY IS THE FEAST OF THE INCARNATION, the celebration of God with us. That which we have longed for has entered our human experience. In Christmas services, we hear the pronouncement of the angel: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

Families and churches often represent the Incarnation visually on Christmas by lighting the “Christ candle” in the center of the Advent wreath. In some churches, the Gospel is read from the center of the church on this day, rather than from the lectern—symbolizing the presence of God, the Word made flesh, in our midst.

The celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord probably originated in Rome during the fourth century. Up until then, Christians had commemorated Christ’s birth, along with other important events related to his early life, on January 6, the feast day of Epiphany. (In many of the Eastern churches—such as the Russian, Greek, and Serbian—Christmas is still celebrated on January 6, preserving this ancient observance.)

The first mention of December 25 as the day of Christ’s Nativity appears on a Roman calendar that was prepared in the year 336. Some theories suggest that the date was chosen to counter the pagan festival of the birthday of the sun, celebrated on the same date during the winter solstice. Others suggest that December 25 was chosen by counting nine months from the traditional date of Christ’s conception, March 25. Either way, it is clear that the church saw a need to commemorate the birth of Christ on its own holiday, emphasizing the unique importance of the Incarnation event.

On Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of humanity and divinity becoming one. The early church theologians stressed that the Incarnation should not be seen as condescension, as the “descent” of God to man, but as the lifting up of humanity into the divine life. As the ancient creed of St. Athanasius puts it, Christ is both divine and human “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.”

The Incarnation makes it possible for the redeemed life to be lived out in this flesh, on this ordinary earth. The Nativity ennobles the lowliest aspects of everyday life: God chose to be born in a stable, with animals and shepherds as his first visitors. In this lies the power of the Incarnation: the humblest things are the most exalted.

The liturgy on Christmas rings out with joy. Carols are sung, often with the aid of trumpets, trombones, and other festive instruments. Incense fills the church, and clergy change their vestments to white or a festive red. In some churches liturgical dance adds to the atmosphere of rejoicing. And in others the Gloria, which had been omitted during Advent, makes its triumphant return. Just as “Glory to God in the highest” was the song of the angels who appeared to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, so it becomes our song as we enter the Christmas season.

And we are entering a new season. For the commercial world, Christmas ends at midnight tonight, followed only by retail sales. But in the liturgical calendar this day is just the beginning of the Christmas season—a celebration that will continue for twelve more days, until the feast of the Epiphany.

~Adapted from Eugene Peterson, “Christmas Day or The Nativity of Our Lord: History of the Feast,” in GOD WITH US:  Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe