As Catholic Christians, we often hear from priests, deacons, and fellow Catholics that the world has forgotten the true meaning of Christmas. In those moments, we may think to ourselves, “I’m glad I’m not like that. I know that Jesus is the true meaning of Christmas!”
But what about Jesus? Do we truly understand the meaning of Christmas, or are we just reciting clichés that we learned as children? For example, we celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas Day, but are we genuinely excited about it? If not, then we may not understand the meaning of Christmas as well as we think we do.
Granted, it’s hard to get excited about something that we didn’t directly experience, especially something that happened 2,000 years ago. As human beings, we need a reason to be excited. We need there to be stakes involved. What are the stakes of Christmas? If Jesus had not come, we would have all, essentially, gone to hell (For more on this, read the Catechism of the Catholic Church 632-635).
The Stakes of Christmas
Appreciating Christmas begins by understanding Easter. At Easter, Jesus rose from the dead and opened for us a path to heaven. Prior to that, we had no way of getting to heaven because of original sin, which we inherited from Adam and Eve.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they chose their own path instead of His, separating themselves from Him forever. Sin and death entered the world and continued to dominate mankind until Jesus came to destroy it.
“So then, as through one offense the result was condemnation to all mankind, so also through one act of righteousness the result was justification of life to all mankind. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5: 18-19).
Let’s really reflect on this in order to fully appreciate it. We can use an analogy to help with our understanding.
Consider a man on death row. Except, in this example, all his descendants are also on death row. There’s no hope. He is going to die because of some crime he committed, and so will his children and grandchildren, even the ones not yet born.
PAUSE. You might be asking yourself how it is fair for the children to pay for the sins of the parents. In this example, it seems harsh and unjust. However, in the example of mankind and original sin, we all are guilty because we all sin. Had we been in Adam and Eve’s shoes, we would have done the same thing. None of us deserves heaven by our own merits.
Back to the example. Suppose that, shortly before execution day, a completely innocent man comes to the courthouse and volunteers to die in the guilty man’s place. By doing so, he would be “washing away” the crime committed by the death row inmate, saving him and his descendants from death.
And so, it happens. The innocent man dies in the guilty man’s place. This is exactly what happened on Good Friday. Jesus, who was God Himself and completely innocent, died to save us all from certain spiritual death. Remember, spiritual death is infinitely worse than bodily death. By rising from the dead on Easter, though, Christ destroyed death and made it possible for us to continue living eternally with Him.
Obviously, the saved death row inmate would have been extremely grateful and ecstatic to have a new lease on life. Just like the early Christians, he would have felt the joy of his salvation with every fiber of his body.
Fast forward two thousand years and his descendants might not feel that same joy because they’re so far removed from the act. That’s us. We’ve forgotten how dark the world and our fate was before Christ came to save us, so we have trouble appreciating what He did.
The Meaning of Christmas
Now that we understand the meaning of Easter, we can understand the meaning of Christmas to be the coming of Christ to save us from certain death.
That is why, during Advent, we excitedly anticipate Christ’s birth. We anticipate our Savior coming to rescue us from a death that we all deserve.
On Christmas, Christ is born. He hasn’t saved us yet, but it’s only a matter of time. You can see this in the lyrics of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:
O come, o come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the son of god appear
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.
“Emmanuel” means “God with us” and refers to God taking on human form to walk among us. Israel represents all of mankind, which is captive to sin and death. They are in exile from the Garden of Eden, from God.
This state of death continues until Jesus, the Son of God, appears on Christmas to save us on Easter. What can we do besides rejoice when that happens? The entire prophecy of the Messiah (and, really, the whole point of the Old Testament for Catholics) is the gradual preparation for Christ’s coming in the New Testament. In fact, even today, our Jewish brothers and sisters continue to wait for the Savior to come, but we Catholics know He already came, and the fight against death is over.
How to Appreciate Christmas
Hopefully, walking through the logic of Christmas helps us understand and appreciate the true meaning more. You can’t appreciate life until you realize how close to death you were.
Before Christ was born, we were all standing on the precipice of a fiery chasm below. Because Christ came, we now have the opportunity to walk down the path He laid out for us, a path that leads to eternal life.