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What Is the Deeper Meaning of Christmas?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Christmas Tree Illumination

Christmas traditions run deep. My parents made magic happen on Christmas morning, and I was happy with the world. Still today, my husband and I love to gather with the same friends to sing our favorite carols. Once again, we hope we’ll hit the high notes in “Oh Holy Night,” and we wonder who will be selected to solo for one of the “three kings.” And as always, the kids are as excited about making Christmas cookies as they are about their stockings hanging over the fireplace mantel.

Is there anything new that could make Christmas brighter still? What is the deeper meaning of Christmas? I think I found something. For most of this past year, I’ve been giving thought to the multiple expressions of ‘savior’ and ‘salvation’ from early Christian writings. Until now, I had always celebrated the birth of Jesus, the savior of the world, at Christmastime. The cookies, carols, and Christmas trees have been delightful reminders of the joy of the season.

Welcoming the Savior

But now I have begun to welcome the savior in unexpected ways. It starts with Paul, the earliest person known to the world today who left anything in writing about Jesus. Although none of his writings include any mention of the special birth of Jesus, Paul does convey an appreciation of Jesus’s arrival on earth as an event of cosmic importance. It was a remedy for the fleshly heritage of Adam, and it was going to save us from the painful limitations of earthly habitation.

Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam [i.e. Jesus] became a life-giving spirit. … The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man [Jesus] is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. (12 Corinthians 15:45 – 49)

The gospel stories of Matthew and Luke are more familiar and include specific (although contradictory) details about the birth event of Jesus. But taken by themselves, the complete account in the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes Jesus’s mission as a savior. The full story in the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as both human and heavenly. From both gospels, it seems the physical birth of Jesus isn’t quite as important as the identity and role of savior that was sent from God.

Evidently this is more of a surprise to me than to the early Christian leaders. Almost a century after Paul, the Church leader Irenaeus expresses Jesus’s birth in the context of a savior:

When He [Jesus] became incarnate and was made man, He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam – namely to be according to the image and likeness of God – that we might recover in Christ Jesus.  (A History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker 2010,  pp. 65–66)

And perhaps even more succinctly, Gregory of Nyssa from the 300s, wrote:

“Venerate the Nativity [of Jesus], through which you are freed from the bonds of an earthly nativity.” (Orthodox readings of Augustine by George E. Demacopoulos, Aristotle Papanikolaou 2008, pp. 92–96)

Two big ideas

I found two big ideas from this: 1) The arrival of Jesus on earth seems to have had more to do with the nature of help that God was sending to the world; and 2) The celebration of baby Jesus has more to do with the recognition of salvation than the object of veneration.

This is the realization that brings me full circle to the discoveries I’ve made this past year concerning saviors in general. Christ, as ‘Savior,’ is more than one unique person. In our new course on the “Thought of Norea: Christ’s Sister Savior,” Hal Taussig and I discuss the fact that there are many features about Norea that remind us of Christ. Norea also has an important human-divine relationship, she is all good, and she helps humanity to be better.

We also recognize that Sophia (Wisdom) is portrayed with so many of these same familiar saving characteristics. And then there is also Seth, the brother of Norea, who is known in many ancient texts as a saving figure.

Why so many saviors? Don’t we have enough with Jesus? That question reminds me of all the Christmas traditions I’ve come to know. Why so many different traditions? Different advent wreaths, different Christmas carols, different dates to celebrate, and different birth stories (such as a manger or a cave).

If we celebrated the birth of Jesus only from the Gospel of Matthew, we’d have no angel speaking to Mary or shepherds visiting the birthplace. If we celebrated the birth of Jesus only from the Gospel of Luke, we’d have no flight to Egypt. Different images of the saving Christ-presence shed light on God’s great gift to the world.

A new Christmas miracle

So this year, I am ready to welcome a new Christmas miracle: God has sent the caring savior we need on earth yesterday, today, and forever. Christ is more than an infant born with shepherds around him and more than the precious child who escaped to Egypt. Christ is all embracing, breaking the bonds of our “earthly nativity,” and presents itself to us in male and female figures. Christ is ready to ‘save’ – or help – anyone, anywhere, at any time. This is God’s great gift. 

Thank you, Jesus, for bearing the title ‘Christ’ so magnificently that we can keep on receiving these Christmas miracles when our world remains in such need, year after year.