The Difference Christmas Makes
From its beginning, Christmas has been seen as different to other religious holidays because it celebrates something utterly unique: God coming into the world. While other religions describe a prophet who essentially says, ‘I am God’s prophet come to help you find God’, Christmas is about God coming to us to say, ‘I am God come to find you’.
This strikes at the heart of the difference between Christianity and other religions. While other religions describe miraculous events, all such events are always done in order to point people to the religious teaching. In other religions, the events point to the teaching; but in Christianity, the teaching points to the events. Indeed, the New Testament describes it as follows:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard. (1 John 1:1-3)
This is precisely what makes Christianity phenomenal in the truest sense – perceptible by the senses or through immediate experience. While other worldviews (religious and secular) are based on abstract ideas, Christianity is based on the historical phenomenon of Christ coming into the world to save sinners. In this sense, Christianity is uniquely based on evidence.
But what difference does Christmas make? How does Christmas bring Joy to the World? In religious views where God only sends prophets to help people find him, the prophets proclaim good advice. For example, keep these ten commandments, follow this eight-fold path, perform these five pillars, etc.
But if God has stepped into human history in order to save us from sin and death, then what’s proclaimed isn’t good advice, but good news, i.e. the gospel. It’s the difference between a defending army losing a battle and sending people back to the city with good advice on what to do next, and the defending army winning the battle and sending people back to the city with good news: rejoice, we’ve won, it’s over!
This makes all the difference in the world. If your worldview is essentially good advice, then your work is never finished. There will always be a work underneath your work (a deeper reason/motive for doing it) and a work underneath your rest (dreams and pursuits that are never satisfied).
But to the extent that your worldview is shaped by the good news that Jesus lived the life we should have lived, died the death we should have died, and rose that we should rise again; to that degree, there will be a rest underneath your work (a freedom to work for the good of your work) and a rest underneath your rest (a satisfaction in what God has given us).
Indeed, this is precisely why Paul could say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12) Without the good news of the gospel, our happiness will only ever be circumstantial. But as the significance of the gospel is realised, it produces a joy that no circumstance can put a cork in.
This is what J.R. Tolkien described as “joy beyond the walls of the world”. In C.S. Lewis’ words, it’s the good news that, “A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.” It’s the noumenal becoming phenomenal, the ideal becoming real, or more accurately, the Word of God becoming flesh. For centuries, it is what has moved countless people to sing:
Joyful, all ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies.
With the angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”