The Meaning of Christmas

By Thomas Parker Boyd

"Behold a young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." — Isaiah 7-14.

Christmas with its central message of "God with us," and therefore "on earth peace, good-will toward men," has returned to us again with the opportunity to demonstrate whether we have intelligently learned its message and caught its spirit. Apart from the universal spirit of beneficence symbolized by Santa Claus, in which each one tries to outvie the other in gifts more or less useful, and more or less selfish, the greater message of Christmas is still to be brought into practical utility by the world.

Christmas discloses the completion of the purpose of God to incarnate Himself in human form. The first revelation of the nature of God is made in the words, "In the beginning God created," and this creative impulse is seen in every living thing from the lowest order to the highest. Herein is the one indelible mark of the kinship of God with all living things. Around this creative impulse have been formed all those social adjustments and activities among living things which suggest the social life of God Himself, as presented by the theologians in the doctrine of the Trinity, for it is reasonable to infer that the law of all lesser things is also the supreme law of the greater — of Him who is all law.

It is an unthinkable thing that God should dwell in solitary infinitude, but rather that from all eternity the Infinite social Being has been finding and losing his life in begetting life, and that this process should reach its climax in a perfect incarnation of Himself in human form, the highest and most complex form in which life manifests itself materially. By such an exhibition of God in human life, "He should bring many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10) by bringing to them the full significance of their own being.

Christmas tells us where God is — with us. And here is the surprise of it all. Had we gone out to Bethlehem that first Christmas morning, we should have found a child in swaddling clothes, ignorant and weak like any other baby. He could have starved for the lack of food, or perished from cold as any other baby, and yet in this ignorance, weakness, and utter helplessness is the presence of the Infinite God.

Here was the case that was to fully interpret humanity. He was in the world before His perfect manifestation in Jesus, and was preparing the world for this particular event. From the foundation of the world, as indwelling Deity, He was universally incarnated as "the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world," "the light shining in the darkness," "the light and life of men" (John 1) in every age. But the full consciousness of the perfect incarnation was not realized in any of these.

Plato, who had seen a great light, was still constrained to say, "We must wait for one, be it a god or a god-inspired man who will teach us our religious duties, and take away the darkness from our eyes." And in these words he set forth prophetically him who was "the desire of all nations" — the eternal Christ (Haggai 2:7).

Christmas was the revelation of the eternal Christ — that he is to be in every man as he was in Jesus, the Christ. And just as we lose sight of the essential Christ to be consciously realized in man universally — the Christ "who worketh in us both to will and to do" (Philippians 2:13), we have laid increasing emphasis on the historical Christ of Nazareth.

Just in proportion as we regard the incarnation as an isolated event, we are ready to join with the woman who said, "Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou hast sucked" (Luke 11:27). While if we regard it as an illustration of what every man is intended to be, we can understand the Master's words, "Rather blessed is he that doeth the will of God … the same is my brother, my sister, and my mother" (Luke 6:46-47).

Here then is the full significance of Christmas. It is the revelation of the indwelling God in every human life.

Christmas is the translation of the incarnation from a single case into the terms of human life universally. It suggests that a normal life consists in the development of the consciousness of that fact to the point where we can say with Saint Paul, "I live, and yet not I but Christ liveth in me" (Galatians 2:20).

The formula used by the church for inducting a man into its membership is really a series of steps for developing this consciousness. Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Communion, prayer, meditation, worship, and good works, all really lead to this full consciousness of oneness with the Father.

Baptism does not make a man a child of God. Instead it is the ceremonial recognition and confession of the fact that he is already one. Without overworking the parable of the prodigal son, it is certain that he still bore the image of his earthly father, and that when he returned to the father's house, the father did not say, "I will wash this beggar, and clothe him, and adopt him as my son," but said, "for this my son."

The Father's love and relationship was fully revealed to us in the fact of that first Christmas, in "that we should be called the sons of God" (1 John 3:1), which we are. We turn back to the Father's house to find that we have been His sons all the time although living apart from our duty and privilege. We learn to say with other sons who have realized their relationship, "beloved now are we the sons of God" (1 John 3:2).

Christmas reveals the divine possibilities of human nature. What is perfect man? Christmas answers that it is the incarnation of God so that human nature and divine nature so blend into one personality, that one cannot discern where human life ends and divine life begin.

It is of the nature of God to incarnate Himself in man, and because He does so, human nature is hungry for the consciousness of God's indwelling. Naught else can ever satisfy. Finding this, he has peace, righteousness, power, health, plenty, and all else.

We have been looking for God in some impressive form as in the earthquake, the fire; the hurricane, and have failed to recognize him in the lowly guise of everyday human experiences. We have been blind to the significance of the example of His identity with humanity, the absolute communion of His life with our life as Jesus of Nazareth who saw with human eyes, touched with human hands, felt with human heart, spoke with human lips and suffered with human sensibilities.

Christ forever consecrated human nature and became the prophecy of our ultimate destiny, that God will in His Infinite love and patience consciously dwell in every human life.

So Christmas shows how the most divine life was foreshadowed in the simplest family, the highest duty performed in a carpenter's shop, and the highest love expressed in the ordinary and familiar relations with friends, neighbors and companions. Therefore, Saint Paul said, "That which may be known of God is manifest in us for he hath revealed it unto me; for the invisible things of God, even his eternal power and Godhead from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made." — Romans 1:19-20.

“You are an incarnation of the divine life.”

You are an incarnation of the divine life. Dwell upon this as the supreme fact of your life. Let the consciousness of it grow in your soul, and the effect of it become apparent in your body and character, insomuch "that men shall take knowledge that you have been with Jesus and learned of him" (Acts 4:13). The kingdom of heaven, with its everlasting health, will be within you. The lord of everlasting health will abide in you as perfect health, and all heeded things shall materialize in you.

The basic truth of the Christmas message meets the world's supreme needs today as no other truth can. Once let the world grasp the full significance of the Christian story of God incarnate, dwelling in flesh, identifying Himself with humanity, carrying humanity up into and dignifying it with divinity. Then man will see the divine image in man, and will cease to fly at his brother's throat, praying God to help him kill the other fellow who bears the divine image. For in a word that is war.

Today a few men claim the divine right to rule, and to slay, but slowly we are arriving at the divine right of universal man to rule, to preserve life as a divine thing. Nothing has done so much to foster this conviction as the story of the Christmas child and the divine man who grew from that child.

How little were men of that day ready to receive that new idea of God. It was a matter of deep concern whether any of the rulers had believed on him. How unready are the "divine" rulers of today, and the owners or "captains of industry," and the "elders" of Israel to receive the message of the divinity of all humanity.

The doctrine of the Transcendence of God, above and apart from all things, ruling by proxy, assigning to underlings authority to rule in his stead, gives ground slowly. So does the truth of the Immanence of God — God in us with its ultimate social democracy makes headway slowly.

The great obstacle in the way of advance is human selfishness. The man who rules by divine right relinquishes his authority only when compelled to by death or revolution. The rulers of industry, as a rule, hoard with no thought of the rights of humanity.

Providence ordains moth and rust, and profligate sons and daughters to help to right the wrong. Ecclesiastical vice-regency, man acting for and instead of God, is too soothing to personal vanity to be easily surrendered, or really used as it ought to be.

It is slow work, brethren, to bring in the Christmas message, for it is a psychological problem requiring time to insure permanency. It took forty days to get Israel out of Egypt, but it took forty years to get Egypt out of Israel.

Herodotus tells us that when the Scythian warriors were away on their long wars, their slaves seized their women and raised up sons who resisted all the efforts of the veteran Scythians to subdue them. When the Scythians remembered that these were the sons of slaves, and brought out the old slave whips and cracked them, the youths laid down their arms and submitted.

The ordinary well-disposed citizen has no idea of fighting until an enemy blows up a battleship, and the band plays "Marching Through Georgia," or the "Star Spangled Banner." Then he hears the slave whip of Mars under which his fathers have served, and straightway he ceases to be a mall of peace.

It takes more than a Hague tribunal to insure universal peace, although that is a help. It will take more than the mere material exhaustion of men and money in the present conflict to insure world-peace.

It will take the recognition and living of the Christmas message of the Immanent Deity, of the inherent divine sonship of humanity, of the universal brotherhood, plus plenty of time to end war. It will come. The forty-two centimeter gun, and the dreadnaught are destined for the junk heap, but humanity is destined to sing in full chorus without a discordant note, "Peace on earth, good will toward men."

Christmas day! Here, at last, bringing peace and good will. After all the weeks of hide and seek among the various members of the family. After all the secret conclaves, from which each member was absent in turn. After having the house shut up and divided into various departments, as "Mother's section," etc., and a chorus of shrieks if one wandered into proximity to some hiding place of gifts and treasures.

Today all is changed. The selfish, secret air of mystery is gone. Wonder and conjecture are over. The house is thrown open. "Merry Christmas!" All is good cheer and hearty greeting. Worries are laid aside, enmities and heart burnings are forgotten. Gifts and tokens of love and remembrances are exchanged. The poor are cheered. The orphans are remembered. The festive table is spread.

Christmas is a beautiful observance of the birthday of him who was the humblest and best of the sons of earth. Fitting universal memorial of him whose nature was love, whose life was service, whose Spirit was peace, whose name was Savior.

Wonderful tribute to the power of simple goodness and integrity, that without political, social, ecclesiastical, or other aid, one life could be so lived that it became the light-bearer for all lives. The King of a kingdom of rightness, peace and joy. All hail! Jesus of Nazareth.

What does it matter if December 25th is purely arbitrary, and about as nearly correct as August 25th would be? The date fits into a scheme of the Church year, which centers about Easter, the day of resurrection and symbol of the future life.

Yet the day itself, the real birthday of Jesus, was the beginning of a new idea of God. He showed us that God dwelt not so much in temples as in the lives of men. As he became flesh and dwelt among men in Jesus, so he repeats the incarnation in every human life. Because Jesus of Nazareth became conscious of whom and what he was — the Son of God, with an inseparable oneness with the Father — he was the teacher, the pioneer, the Savior, who should lead the way for all the sons of men to become conscious of their sonship to and oneness with God.

For ages man had believed in the humanity of his nature and life and he lived a very human life. Yet, after that first Christmas there was revealed to him the truth of his divinity as well, with the secret of how to live a divine life in the flesh.

Since then a countless multitude have so lived that they could say with Jesus of Nazareth, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9). Consciously to realize and say that, is the measure of the stature of the fullness of a Christian man.

I suppose that if some carpenter at his bench, some merchant at his counter, or even some parson in the sacred desk should quietly say, "The Father and I are one, he that hath seen me hath seen the Father," there would be a commotion as great as that in the Church at Nazareth long ago. While the law would not let us do him physical violence by throwing him over the brow of the hill, still we would brand him as all heretic, or visionary.

“A life that is actually lived in the consciousness of being a son of God
is a perpetual Christmas.”

We might feel it our Christian duty to hurt his business and so prove that God was displeased with him because he didn't see things as we did, yet he would be saying only what God wants every man to say and to be, "That all men shall take knowledge that they have been with Him and learned of Him." A life that is actually lived in the consciousness of being a son of God is a perpetual Christmas.

Why not have Christmas every day? Certainly not the exaggerated foolishness and extravagance, nor the mystery plays attending the preparation for the "tree," but the Spirit of Christmas. Why not have its Spirit of peace, of joy, and of good will?

It is really astonishing how small your own troubles seem when you get busy trying to make someone else happy. Some people would be permanently cured of their ills, if they had a steady job helping others and the inspiration to work at it. For this is the secret of peace, to keep the mind absorbed in thinking good to others, and the hands busy in doing it.

Many of my patients have been well and happy during the few weeks before and after Christmas. They have been so busy that they forgot to take account of their own troubles. This is the same psychological principle that I have found so effective in recommending patients with certain phobias and forms of an obsession to set about raising fancy fowls, or mushrooms, making garments for the children of the less fortunate, or raising families of their own.

While it is true that our worries are real and wear us to a frazzle, they are always unwarranted by the facts, and this diversion of the mind would end them. It is true that even physical pain and suffering lose their keen edge when we strongly turn the mind to other things.

Christmas every day, with its dominant note of joy, must end much of our sense of weakness, physical and otherwise, for "the joy of the Lord is our strength" (Nehemiah 8:10). There is something of power and strength set free when we begin to sound the note of joy. "Hallelujah. Praise ye the Lord," etc., repeated often enough, will unlock the fountains of joy and strength.

Christmas every day would keep us in the mental attitude of peace and good will. You cannot feel kindly toward the person you have wronged. Confession and forgiveness go before peace.

What soul can sing or hear the hymns, carols, and music of Christmas, and hold the old grudge? Who can catch the hearty good will flung openly, and on every hand, and fail to see that for a time life has lost its sordidness, and we have caught the spirit of the divine brotherhood?

Let us make it every day, and we shall be healthier, and happier, and more prosperous, because we dwell in the Spirit of Christmas, which we can condense into one word — Service, which by the chemistry of love is transmuted into happiness.

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Thomas Parker Boyd
1864 –1936
Episcopalian theologian, D.D., PhD,
teacher, preacher and author

Thomas Parker Boyd originally published this article, "The Meaning of Christmas," in Christian Healing, J. F. Rowny Press. Christmas 1917. Revised 2016. Copyright ©2016 The Society of the Universal Living Christ.