One night, a couple of thousand years ago, some humble shepherds stood in the dark in a land on the far side of the globe.
And something happened.
There was an angel, and bright light, and they were terrified.
And then there was peace, and a thundering exultation, and then a hurried shuffling, down into town, to find a newborn in a stable.
That's what we think of at Christmas.
If we ever ponder its meaning we think of a nativity set, carved in our memory, of a man and a woman and a baby and some shepherds. Maybe a sheep and some camels and three men dressed like kings.
Christmas. The holiest day in Christendom.
Only it's not.
Christmas is not the defining holiday of Christianity. The birth of Christ was a means to an end, but it was not the end.
It is not his birth which is most miraculous or of the greatest significance.
It is his death, and the events surrounding it.
The birth of Jesus was astounding in its uniqueness. Of the billions of babies to grace his creation and the billions of parents, his father was the only one not mortal. His father was God, a divine being, and from him he inherited certain characteristics, as any child would.
From his father, Jesus inherited immortality. From his mother, Jesus inherited mortality. From her, the obligation to die. From him, the power to rise again.
But it is not the nature of Jesus upon which the eternities rest. It is upon the mission of Jesus. What he did some 30 years after the shepherds and wise men had all gone their way.
The birth of Jesus, the event celebrated at Christmas, was important not for what it was, but for what it led to.
And that is sorrow.
The ultimate proof that the price of love is steep and painful. The life of Christ is not epitomized by the manger, but by the turmoil of Gethsemane and the agony of the cross, and the emptiness of the tomb.
The mission of Jesus was simple, to give us victory over physical and spiritual death, to open for us doors we could not open on our own. To blaze a path leading back to our father and his.
Had he not come, had he not done what he did, death would forever separate us from our bodies and sin would forever separate us from our God.
But he did come and he did do what he set out to do.
He died, and was resurrected. He broke the chains of death, for himself and for us. And as a result we will all be similarly resurrected.
Our spirits will leave our bodies at death, but at the appointed time we will reclaim them, perfected and immortal, never more to lay them down.
That is a free gift.
It is given to all.
The victory over spiritual death is also a free gift, but with a slight and significant distinction. It is not given to all, but it is available to all.
We have to take it up and make it effective in our lives.
How? By repenting of our sins and keeping the Lord’s commandments.
If we do that, the atonement worked in Gethsemane and on the cross will cleanse us and redeem us, and give us entry to God
Christ, like all of us, was born pure and innocent, free of sin and taint. But, unlike us, he stayed that way. We grow and mature and learn the difference between right and wrong, and make moral choices, and often make the wrong ones.
He did not.
And somehow that purity, that complete moral innocence, made it possible for him who had done no wrong to suffer the penalty for those of us who have and will.
He satisfied the demands of justice and opens to us, on condition of faith and repentance, his mercy.
It sounds mystical, and it is.
It is completely incomprehensible.
It is acceptable only as a matter of faith.
And that is our task in this life. To develop faith in him, to use his atonement to repent of our sins, to keep his commandments.
And none of that has to do with Bethlehem.
Jesus the infant is easy. He demands nothing of us but the simple awe of the miracle of birth.
Jesus the savior requires so much more of us. A surrender of self, a walk of faith, a life lived his way, not ours. All of that can be frightening, though it is ultimately comforting and peaceful and empowering.
At least that’s what I’ve heard.
Because I’m not there yet. I’m not even really on the path. But my failings don’t make it wrong, they simply make me wrong.
And I know enough to know that Christmas, as we celebrate it, tricks us. It is only a part of the story, the least important part, and too many of us don’t think to learn the rest.
So merry Christmas. May you marvel at and bask in the glory of Mary’s boy-child Jesus.
But don’t leave it at that.
Remember what he grew up to do, and what that means to each of us.
And what that requires of each of us.