Truth in a Familiar, Accessible Form
THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
By Edward Waters
(Copyright © 2003)
‘Mild He lays His glory by.’
In his acclaimed book Peace Child, Don Richardson recounts his difficulty, as a missionary in the 1960s, trying to communicate the gospel to a remote tribe of cannibals whose culture prized treachery as the highest of ideals. For them, earning someone’s complete trust, then having them for dinner (first in one sense, followed closely by another) constituted an art and a means to status. So how was one to explain the life and work of Christ to a people predisposed to see Judas as the hero of the tale? Richardson eventually found the answer when he observed the tribe, desperate to end a destructive war with a neighbour, secure peace by offering one of its own beloved children to be raised by the enemy. The ‘peace child’ proved a decisive object lesson by which the missionary was able to relate to that culture the identity and role of another beloved Son who came and lived among enemies in order to bring peace between God and mankind.
I think about this story every time I hear some well-meaning Christian rail against the pagan origins of so many Christmas traditions. Yes, adorning evergreen trees, making wreaths, decking the halls with boughs of holly, even Christmas Day’s place on the calendar, all hail from pre-Christian times and cultures. But, like Richardson’s use of the tribe’s peace child idea – in fact, like the apostle Paul in Athens, quoting Greek poets  and citing an altar ‘to an unknown god’  – early missionaries to Europe endeavoured to illustrate and help drive home the Truths of the gospel (such as resurrection and eternal life) by appropriating, reinterpreting, and so redeeming certain elements of the cultures to which they ministered. God has been using this method since the Fall, by the way: Even circumcision was around long before it was entrusted to Moses. And let’s not forget the ghastly origins of the cross!
So I try to allow myself to enjoy the Advent season, what most people now call ‘Christmas time’. Admittedly, I make some adjustments: Objecting to how commercial the holiday has become, my wife and I generally give home-baked goods instead of buying presents – and if I send cards, I design them myself. Also, from early in our marriage we always said that if we had children we would seek to provide them with some better source of wonder than a certain popular figure that has become tarnished with rather more than just ashes and soot. But I do love Christmas trees, Christmas dinners, snowy country scenes, reading of Scrooge and his visitations, caroling, gatherings of friends around the hearth, and so forth. In truth, many of the once-pagan elements of the occasion have degenerated into something neither pagan nor Christian but merely secular, and I find that more sad than threatening.
Yet, whatever comes into my Christmas observance, I for one never forget that which the day now celebrates. In fact, every year – sooner or later – I am struck anew by the phenomenal notion of the Incarnation itself. Perhaps because I was a poet at heart raised by parents of a strong scientific bent, I may comprehend the in-comprehensible vastness of the universe as well as any finite human can – how tiny our galaxy is in that universe, how tiny our sun is in that galaxy, how tiny our planet is compared to that sun, and how tiny we are on the face of this planet. And I am utterly awed by the thought that the Creator of All, who infinitely dwarfs the seemingly infinite cosmos, entered that cosmos and took on the shape, limitation, and vulnerability of a tiny human child. He who by His very Being humbles all things somehow became the definition of humility itself, and the paragon of expressing eternal Truth in a familiar, accessible form. ‘Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see. Hail, th’incarnate Deity!’
Love’s sacrifice on our behalf culminated at Calvary, but it began in the womb of a young woman barely more than a child herself. People who talk of ‘the Christmas spirit’ may mean any number of things, but the true spirit of Christmas is humility born of love. He ‘who is enthroned on high … humbles Himself’, wrote the psalmist.  ‘“They shall call His name Immanuel,”’ quoted Matthew, ‘… God with us.’  If the love of God could so move Him to humble Himself, how can it not move us to humble ourselves as well, both toward Him and toward one another? ‘Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,’ wrote Paul.  That indeed could be considered the apostle’s way of wishing the Christmas spirit on us all.
 Acts 17.28
 Acts 17.23
 Psalm 113.5-6
 Isaiah 7.14; Matthew 1.23
 Philippians 2.5
[Revised from a devotional first delivered in 2002 at Covenant Fellowship of Greensboro, North Carolina]