Christmas in three words

‘Describe Christmas in three words’.

That was the challenge put to various celebrities in a Marks & Spencer advert a few years ago.

‘Eating too much’, said the actress Honor Blackman.

‘Morecombe and Wise’, said Redgrave and Pinsent, the Olympic rowers.

Other suggestions were ‘filling a stocking’, ‘The Queen’s Speech’, and ‘last-minute shopping’, before the inevitable finale: ‘Marks and Spencer’. But what about the words ‘Christ is born’? Where do they fit in? Have you noticed that if you take Christ out of the word ‘Christmas’ you are left with just three letters, ‘MAS’ — ‘M&S’? Is that really all that Christmas is about?

It’s easy at Christmas time to be so preoccupied with shopping and partying that we forget what it is we’re supposed to be celebrating. The Bible describes the coming of Jesus as an event of massive significance for God’s dealings with the world he made, and for every individual in it. I have chosen my own three words to summarise the Bible’s teaching about the true meaning of Christmas: ‘historical’, ‘joyful’, and ‘essential’. Those words point to truths that have transformed the lives of millions of people throughout the world… they could transform your life too.

1. Christmas is historical: it really happened

Many people think of Jesus in the same category as Santa, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and the flying snowman. We’ve known the story of his birth in the manger since childhood. We may have believed in it then, but now that we’ve reached the adult world of harsh reality, don’t we have to face facts and accept that, just as Father Christmas doesn’t really live in Lapland, so Jesus wasn’t really born in a manger?

No! The Bible insists that Jesus is not just a mythical character; he really existed. The best way to find out more about him is to read one of the gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. They were all written within a few decades of the events they describe and take great care to record accurate history.

Luke, for example, begins his Gospel by describing the efforts he has taken to ensure he has got his facts right: ‘carefully investigating everything’ and receiving his information from ‘eyewitnesses’.

The New Testament is not a myth or fantasy; it’s history. Jesus really was born in a stable in Bethlehem. He then grew up to become the most remarkable man the world has ever seen. One writer has put it well:

‘I’m far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever sailed, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon earth as has that one solitary life.’

There has never been anyone else like Jesus. He lived a life of astonishing humility, kindness and compassion. He loved everyone: rich and poor, male and female, Jew and Gentile. He taught as no one else has ever taught. Although he was an unschooled carpenter from an obscure part of the Roman Empire, his words still captivate the minds of millions 2,000 years after he lived on earth. And he performed extraordinary miracles, which even his enemies couldn’t deny. He just said the word and the blind saw, the lame walked and the dead were raised.

But, despite all the good he did, the religious establishment felt threatened by him and persuaded the Roman authorities to have him crucified when he was still only in his early 30s. If that was where the story ended, his brief life would have been largely forgotten by now, but he didn’t stay in the tomb. God raised him from the dead and he appeared to many people. This was no ordinary man! And he is not a mythical or fictional character. Christmas is historical: it really happened!

2. Christmas is joyful: God really cares

Christmas is not just historical; it’s also joyful. An angel, who had been sent by God, announced the birth of Jesus to some shepherds saying: ‘I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people’. But what is the joyful message of Christmas?

Christmas is a natural time for us to look back on the year that has passed. Perhaps it has been a difficult one for you and God has felt a million miles away. You may be able to identify with the words of Sting’s song, ‘O my God’:

Everyone I know is lonely
And God’s so far away
And my heart belongs to no one,
So now sometimes I pray
Please take the space between us
And fill it up some way.

The great news is that God did exactly that on the first Christmas Day: he filled up the space between him and us. We still may not understand why there is so much suffering in the world, but at least we can be sure that God is not indifferent to it. He didn’t simply send his condolences by long-distance telephone call; he got involved by sending his own Son to be born on earth.

3. Christmas is essential: it really matters

Jesus didn’t just come to earth to demonstrate God’s love; he came to achieve an urgent rescue. The apostle Paul, one of the greatest early Christian leaders, tells us: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’.

Our behaviour is illustrated by the story of a little boy who had desperately wanted to play Joseph in the school nativity play but was given the more minor part of the inn keeper instead. Wounded, the boy sulkily waited for a suitable moment to take his revenge. On the night of the play, with the school hall packed with teachers and proud parents, Mary and Joseph came towards him and delivered their familiar line: ‘Is there any room at the inn?’

Instead of saying ‘no’ and offering the stable, the boy saw his opportunity to steal the show and, with a broad smile replied, ‘Yes, plenty of room, come right in!’ Poor Mary and Joseph stood dumbfounded, not knowing what to do next, and the production descended into chaos.

There’s something of that boy in all of us. If all the world’s a stage, then God our creator wrote the play, designed the set and is the producer as well. Our role is to live as he designed us to: in grateful, trusting submission to him. That is the best way to live, as the maker intended. But we’re not happy with the part he has given us: it doesn’t give us the prominence we think we deserve, so we tear up the script, writing our own lines with God pushed to the margins and ourselves at the centre.

Human sin is the ultimate cause of all that spoils life on earth, leading to the oppression, injustice and warfare which blight the lives of millions. But the impact of sin is also seen very close to home. Why is it that Christmas is one of the most stressful periods of the year? Even at this time of ‘peace and good will’, we aren’t able to suppress our selfishness and find it almost impossible to get on with those we love most.

Sin isn’t just a problem for other people; it infects us all and destroys the perfect world God made. It is surely no surprise that the Bible says he is angry with us. A just God who cares about right and wrong can’t just ignore our sin; he must punish it. The punishment we all deserve is eternal separation from him.

In his justice God must punish, but in his great love he longs to forgive us. That’s why he sent Jesus to earth on the first Christmas Day: to rescue us so that we could be his friends again. Jesus lived a perfect life. He was the one man who ever lived who did not deserve to face the punishment of death and separation from God. But he willingly obeyed his heavenly Father, and stood in for sinful humanity when he died on the cross.

Jesus took the punishment we deserved, so we needn’t face it. If we trust in him, we can be sure that the price has been paid for all our sins and we are completely accepted by God, not because of anything we’ve done, but because of Jesus’s death in our place. We needn’t fear the day when Christ returns to judge the world, but can instead look forward to joining him in the perfect new creation he will establish.

This is a much-reduced extract from a new evangelistic booklet, Christmas in Three Words, published by The Good Book Company (16 pages, 3.00 for a pack of 10, http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk).

Vaughan Roberts