As Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol begins, there is mystery surrounding Ebenezer Scrooge. Why is he so mean-spirited? How did he become so selfish? Then, slowly, as the Christmas spirits marched Scrooge through his own story, things become clearer. We see the influences that changed him from a happy youth into a selfish miser. We observe his isolation and his brokenness. As the mystery is solved, we also glimpse the path to restoration. Concern for others pulls Scrooge from his self-absorbed darkness into a new joy.
A far more important mystery, and one much harder to explain, is that which Paul spoke of in 1 Timothy 3:16: “Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.” Extraordinary! God “appeared in the flesh.”
The mystery of Christmas is how God could become man while remaining fully God. It defies human explanation, but in the perfect wisdom of God, it was the plan of the ages.
“What child is this?” He is Jesus Christ—God revealed in the flesh.
Like most children, I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas. With great anticipation, I would snoop under the tree to see what toys and games awaited my eager grasp. So I felt deflated when I started getting things like shirts and pants. Grownup gifts were no fun! Then last Christmas, my kids gave me some cool socks with bright colors and designs. I almost felt young again! Even grownups could wear these socks, as the label reassured me: “One size fits all.”
That welcome phrase “one size fits all” reminds me of the best gift of Christmas—the good news that Jesus is for everyone. The point was proven when the first invitation sent by angel choirs was to shepherds on the bottom rung of the social ladder. The news was underscored further when the VIPs—the wealthy and powerful Magi—followed the star to come and worship the Christ-child.
After Jesus began His ministry, an influential member of the Jewish ruling council came to Him at night. In the course of their conversation, Jesus invited “whoever believes” to come to Him. The simple act of faith in Christ grants eternal life to those who trust in Him (John 3:16).
If Jesus were just for the poor and marginalized, or only for the famous and fortunate, many of us would not qualify. But Christ is for everyone, regardless of status, financial situation, or social standing. He is the only gift truly fit for all.
“The Little Drummer Boy” is a popular Christmas song written in 1941. It was originally known as “Carol of the Drum” and is based on a traditional Czech carol. Although there isn’t any reference to a drummer boy in the Christmas story in Matthew 1–2 and Luke 2, the point of the carol goes straight to the heart of the meaning of worship. The carol describes how a boy is summoned by the Magi to the scene of Christ’s birth. Unlike the wise men, however, the drummer has no gift—so he gives what he has. He plays his drum, saying, “I played my best for Him.”
This echoes the worship Jesus described when He told of the widow and her two coins: “ ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on’ ” (Luke 21:3-4).
All the drummer boy had was his drum and all the poor widow had were her two coins, but the God they worshiped was worthy of their all. He is worthy of our all as well, having given His all for us.
In the summer of 1861, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife, Frances, died tragically in a fire. That first Christmas without her, he wrote in his diary, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.” The next year was no better, as he recorded, “ ‘A merry Christmas,’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”
In 1863, as the American Civil War was dragging on, Longfellow’s son joined the army against his father’s wishes and was critically injured. On Christmas Day that year, as church bells announced the arrival of another painful Christmas, Longfellow picked up his pen and began to write, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
The poem begins pleasantly, lyrically, but then takes a dark turn. The violent imagery of the pivotal fourth verse ill suits a Christmas carol. “Accursed” cannons “thundered,” mocking the message of peace. By the fifth and sixth verses, Longfellow’s desolation is nearly complete. “It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent,” he wrote. The poet nearly gave up: “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.”
But then, from the depths of that bleak Christmas day, Longfellow heard the irrepressible sound of hope. And he wrote this seventh stanza.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep! The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men!”
The war raged on and so did memories of his personal tragedies, but it could not stop Christmas. The Messiah is born! He promises, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5).
As a boy I delivered newspapers in order to earn money. Since it was a morning newspaper, I was required to get up at 3:00 every morning, 7 days a week, in order to have all 140 of my papers delivered to their appropriate homes by 6:00 a.m.
But one day each year was different. We would deliver the Christmas morning newspaper on Christmas Eve—meaning that Christmas was the only morning of the year I could sleep in and rest like a normal person.
Over the years, I came to appreciate Christmas for many reasons, but one that was special in those days was that, unlike any other day of the year, it was a day of rest.
At that time, I didn’t fully understand the meaning of the true rest that Christmas brings. Christ came so that all who labor under the weight of a law that can never be fulfilled might find rest through the forgiveness Christ offers. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). In a world that is too much for us to bear alone, Christ has come to bring us into a relationship with Him and give us rest.
Every year our local botanical garden hosts a celebration of Christmas around the world. My favorite display is a French nativity. Instead of the traditional scene showing shepherds and wise men with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh gathered around the manger, it shows French villagers bringing their gifts to baby Jesus. They bring bread, wine, cheese, flowers, and other items that God has given them the ability to produce. This reminds me of the Old Testament command to bring the firstfruits of our labor to the house of the Lord (Ex. 23:16-19). This depiction of the nativity illustrates that everything we have comes from God, so the only thing we have to give is something that God has given us.
When Paul instructed the Romans to present themselves as a living sacrifice, he was telling them to give back to God what God had given them—their own selves (Rom. 12:1). This includes the gifts He gave them, even their ability to earn a living. We know that God gives people special abilities. Some, like David, were skilled in music (1 Sam. 16:18). Some, like Bezalel and Oholiab, were skilled in artistic works (Ex. 35:30-35). Others have skill in writing, teaching, gardening, and many other things.
When we give back to God what He has first given to us, we give Him the perfect gift—ourselves.
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and then to shepherds with good news for the world (Luke 1:26-27; 2:10), was it good news to this teenage girl? Perhaps Mary was thinking: How do I explain my pregnancy to my family? Will my fiancé Joseph call off the betrothal? What will the townspeople say? Even if my life is spared, how will I survive as a mother all alone?
When Joseph learned about Mary’s pregnancy, he was troubled. He had three options. Go ahead with the marriage, divorce her publicly and allow her to be publicly scorned, or break off the engagement quietly. Joseph chose option three, but God intervened. He told Joseph in a dream, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20).
For Mary and Joseph, Christmas began with submitting themselves to God in spite of the unthinkable emotional challenges before them. They entrusted themselves to God and in doing so demonstrated for us the promise of 1 John 2:5: “If anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them.”
May God’s love fill our hearts this Christmas season—and every day—as we walk with Him.
Fifty years ago A Charlie Brown Christmas was first broadcast on American television. Some network executives thought it would be ignored, while others worried that quoting the Bible would offend viewers. Some wanted its creator, Charles Schulz, to omit the Christmas story, but Schulz insisted it stay in. The program was an immediate success and has been rebroadcast every year since 1965.
When Charlie Brown, the frustrated director of the children’s Christmas play, is discouraged by the commercial spirit of the holiday season, he asks if anyone can tell him the real meaning of Christmas. Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 including the words, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (vv. 11-14 kjv). Then Linus says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
During this season filled with our own doubts and dreams, it’s good to ponder afresh God’s great love expressed in the familiar story of Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, and the angels who announced the Savior’s birth.
That’s what Christmas is all about.
According to a New York Times article, children in many African countries are often named after a famous visitor, special event, or circumstance that was meaningful to the parents. When doctors told the parents of one child that they could not cure the infant’s illness and only God knew if he would live, the parents named their child Godknows. Another man said he was named Enough, because his mother had 13 children and he was the last one! There’s a reason for everyone’s name, and in some cases it also conveys a special meaning.
Before Jesus was born, an angel of the Lord told Joseph, “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means “the Lord saves.” In that day and culture, many children would have been named Jesus, but only one came into this world to die so that all who receive Him might live eternally, forgiven and freed from the power of sin.
Charles Wesley wrote these words we often sing as Christmas nears: “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free; from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in Thee.”
Jesus came to turn our darkness into light, to transform our despair into hope, and to save us from our sins.