If you happen to think this cliche is a nice thing to say, I have no intention of changing your mind. The purpose of my post this month is not to eliminate this phrase (if you happen to enjoy catchy cliches), but rather to expand on it so that next time you do see it on the side of a cocoa mug, you’ll think about it on a way bigger scale. I think our understanding of “the season” is far too small.
First, about tinsel and candy canes…
I’m sure that some of my resistance to this cliche has to do with the fact that Christmas is neither defined in Scripture, nor did it exist in any form during the life of Jesus or the apostles. It’s a conglomeration of ancient and medieval pagan traditions which have been passed down to us in Western culture. Somewhere along the way, the incarnation of Christ got thrown in there with the pine trees and the tinsel. (You don’t even want to know what tinsel used to symbolize in ancient Rome.)
I’m not here to talk you out of Christmas, or even to discourage believers from taking any opportunity (however quirky) to celebrate the incarnation (which, by the way, should be so much more than simply commemorating a man’s birthday–see my song from John 1:9-18 at the top of this post.) We can and should take every opportunity to worship Christ, to celebrate the moment in time when God became flesh, and to get excited about the gospel. If that includes singing “Joy to the World” on December 25, I’m there. (Can we sing it in March and July, too? Just asking.)
It’s right to shine the light of Scripture on all the things we do–including our cultural customs and traditions. But, to get this right, we have to start by acknowledging that our understanding of the incarnation doesn’t come from the holiday we call Christmas, and that even if Constantine had never decreed in 336 A.D. that the December 25 pagan celebration of unconquered sun gods should be replaced with a commemoration of the birth of Jesus (which was probably in September), we would still have the gospel. I suspect, in the broad scheme of God’s plan for history and for the world, knowing the Christian symbolism of the candy cane might not be as spiritually significant as we make it out to be.
With the help of three intriguing passages from Galatians, let’s step way back for a minute and take a look at what Jesus is actually the reason for–according to the Bible. Maybe then the phrase “Jesus is the reason for the season” will mean something more than just Christmas.
Jesus is the reason for the world
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal 3:8-9)
In this verse, Paul makes an outstanding claim: that God was “preaching the gospel” to Abraham in the promises he made to him–the promises that go all the way back to Genesis 12. Paul’s claim implies that not only is Jesus the reason for the gospel–a fact we would never dispute–but also that Jesus is the reason for the entire biblical story of Israel.
In his promise to Abraham, God includes the nations as the recipients of gospel blessing. Just as Israel was formed in order to bring forth the Son, so the Son’s coming brings forth blessing to the nations. In that one moment so long before the birth of Christ, God had in mind not only the nation which would come from Abraham’s own body (Gen 15:4), but also the nation which would come from Abraham’s son’s own body–the blessed nation of believing Jews and Gentiles formed through Jesus Christ’s bodily and historical incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (1 Pet 2:9; Rom 4:9-17; Eph 2:14-22).
Since before he created the world, God has had a purpose for the world, and that purpose is to exalt Jesus Christ, the man who is God, his only begotten Son, to the highest place over creation (Eph 1:20-21; Phil 2:9-11; Heb 1:3-4, 8-12). It’s not overstating the biblical teaching to say that the world exists precisely for one purpose: to stage what God wanted to reveal in Jesus–his wisdom, grace, and power. Thus, you and I exist for that same purpose (Rom 9:22-23). You might say, Jesus is the reason for your life. Jesus is the reason for the world.
Jesus is the reason for the Bible
Likewise, Jesus is the reason for the Scriptures, in which a relatively narrow segment of human life and history is selectively portrayed under the influence of the Holy Spirit for one purpose: to reveal God’s precious Son. In a variety of powerful ways, the story of Israel points us to Christ. Through the purpose God has given her among the nations, Israel foreshadows, or typifies, Christ. Through her failure to accomplish that purpose, she typifies humanity’s desperate need for Christ. In reading Israel’s story, we find Christ and our need for him. To find anything else–any significance in Israel apart from Christ–is to misread the Scriptures (John 5:39-47; Luke 26:27; Rom 3:21-23).
This doesn’t mean that every verse in the Old Testament contains a “Messianic prophecy.” It’s true, there are many such prophetic verses, for example, Isaiah 9:6:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Is. 9:6)
However, the majority of the Old Testament is not intended to predict Christ but rather to portray Christ beforehand, both in the positive (through God-ordained types and shadows in Israel’s law and history) and in the negative (through Israel’s failure and living proof that man is enslaved to sin with no hope of rescue but the mercy of God through his promised son). Through Israel, God portrays both Christ and the world which so desperately needs him.
Jesus is the reason for the promises
The Jews were prone, as we are, to forgetting that Jesus was the reason for all their “seasons” as well. They forgot that Jesus was the reason for the Sabbath. He was the reason for the temple. He was the reason for the sacrifices and for the feasts. The whole history of Israel funnels to a single point: Jesus Christ. Nothing God ever promised Israel ever had any meaning apart from Christ. He was the true son, the true Israel, the true heir whom God always intended to inherit all things.
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Gal 3:16)
Through faith in the single promised offspring of Abraham–the one who claims to be the true vine of God (John 15:1; Isaiah 5:7), Israel and the nations gain access to God. Through him alone we gain the promised eternal inheritance (Heb 2:14-16; 9:15). Like the narrow point in the middle of an hourglass–the spot in which only one single grain of sand can pass, Jesus is the single point in all of history and creation to which all things pointed and from which all things are now proceeding (Col 1:16).
If Jesus is the reason for the story of our lives and of the Bible, then I guess in some sense we can say he is the reason for Christmas, which, as part of our American, 21st century life has come to include a remembrance of his birth in Bethlehem.
But if this statement only means that we wish everyone would focus on mangers instead of presents and wise men instead of elves, I think we’ve missed the point. What does it matter if you choose to put up the blow-up nativity in your yard instead of the flashing neon Santa, if the “season” Jesus is the reason for only lasts a month?
Jesus is the reason for the season…do you know what season this is?
Even Charlie Brown can appreciate Luke 2 at Christmastime. Even Frank Sinatra can add “O Holy Night” to his Christmas album, and sing it with the same heart-felt gusto as when he sings “I Did It My Way.” Feeling religious at Christmas–making Christmas spiritual–isn’t really the point. Adding the baby in the manger to your Christmas celebration makes virtually no difference if you don’t believe that baby was God himself, born to die 33 years later, dying to be raised as the firstborn adam over the new creation. It’s the gospel of the incarnation and how it fits into the eternal plan of God that matters. There’s no reason to feel good about making Jesus the reason for this season if he isn’t already the reason for everything else.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that finding the “true meaning of Christmas” doesn’t really register as any more important than finding the true meaning of Mondays or of summertime or of mornings. What is the true meaning of all these things? On what crucial pivot do the seasons of time turn? On Christmas? Not at all, rather, on Christ.
It’s far more valuable, then, for yourself and for those you love, that you be concerned with whether or not you and they understand the reason for this season in history, this season in God’s plan in which all has been accomplished in and through the one for whom he made all things. If you understand this, you will naturally glorify him at Christmas as in all things. If you do not, it won’t matter whether you choose for your Christmas cards a picture of Santa or a sacred portrayal of the holy star of Bethlehem. Christmas isn’t the point. Jesus is. He’s the reason for every season, most of all for this season of grace in which we now live (2 Cor 6:2).
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal 4:4-7)