Christmas, the Most Humbling Holiday

A picture taken on December 3, 2022, shows the Christmas tree at the Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, in Bethlehem. (Photo by Hazem Bader / AFP via Getty Images.)

I grew up in a Christian tradition that didn’t celebrate Christmas. My family certainly celebrated, but the church—as a body—generally did not. It viewed Christmas as a purely secular holiday, with pagan roots in winter solstice celebrations. Open presents, sure. Put up a tree, fine. But celebrate the Advent? No thank you. In fact, we’d sing “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” in July, just to show that those hymns didn’t belong to December. 

As a result, I didn’t truly experience Advent until law school, when I belonged to a Christian fellowship that brought together believers from virtually every branch of the faith. But there was a blessing to my late arrival in the mainstream of Christian tradition—it gave me an opportunity to think through Advent as an adult, rather than breeze past it as an inherited habit of my childhood. And when I truly meditated on Christ’s birth, it humbled me, and it humbles me still.

There’s the obvious reason for humility. Christmas presents us with a staggering notion. As the Apostle Paul states in the book of Philippians, Christ, “existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross.”

We spend our lives building our names, our reputations, and (often) our self-regard. The God we serve did the opposite. He “emptied himself.” It’s no wonder that Paul thus admonishes Christians that we should “do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.”

That’s the first reason for humility, but there are others, including one that haunts me every Christmas. This reason for humility pervades almost every page of the Gospel story—the son of God arrived on this earth, lived, taught, and even performed miracles, yet virtually every single person who encountered him misunderstood his identity and his purpose. Even his own disciples didn’t fully understand until after his resurrection from the dead.

And, critically, he didn’t arrive in a secular society or in a terribly secular age. Many of the people who failed to recognize him were the people who were most intimately familiar with scripture, including those scriptures that prophesied a coming messiah. The Gospels are replete with examples of the ruling religious class rejecting Jesus.

Indeed, it was often their intimate knowledge of those texts and their scrupulous adherence to doctrine that blinded them to the truth. To them, Christ wasn’t a law-keeper, he was a law-breaker. He healed on the Sabbath, for example, an action that seems obviously correct to us now—after we know who Jesus is—but would have seemed like a direct violation of biblical commands at the time.

To make matters even worse, when religious leaders confronted Jesus over his infraction, Jesus said, “My father is still working, and I am working also.” It’s this moment that tells me that—barring a miracle—I would have been a pharisee. Jesus breaks the law and claims God is his father? Now, in our civilized Western liberal democracies, we wouldn’t have plotted to kill Jesus. There would be no beatings, but there would be stern tweetings. Kill Jesus? No. Cancel Jesus? Absolutely, with gusto. 

In other words, I’m blessed to live now. I can possess absolutely no pride in my own belief that Jesus is the son of God. The way in which he fulfilled Old Testament prophecy is explained, at length, in the scriptures. The difference between Christ “abolishing” the law and fulfilling it is explained, at length, by Christ and his apostles. My leap of faith, after Christ’s resurrection, is so much smaller than the leap of faith required of a teacher of the law looking at a flesh-and-blood human being who claimed to be the actual son of God. 

Once I understand who I would have been, it carries immense implications for who I choose to be now. It means absorbing the profound limits of my own understanding. It means taking to heart Paul’s admonition that we “see through a glass, darkly,” and it casts into sharp relief the primacy of approaching the world with love, not with pride. 

And what love is we know: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 

To acknowledge the limits of our understanding is not to embrace moral relativism. To say that it is sometimes hard to discern truth does not mean there is no truth. Instead, acknowledging the limits of our understanding requires us to embrace humility, recognize that we often find the truth in the most unlikely of places, and admit that even our most firm convictions can be firmly wrong. 

Christmas reminds me of those commitments. It also reminds me of how I’ve failed, every year, to live up to those ideals. Yet it reminds me how, in the midst of my failures, there is hope—hope in the form of the unexpected, surprising Christ who humbled himself to become of us, to share in our suffering, and to cover our sins with his boundless grace. 

One last thing …

Let’s end my month of Christmas songs with a carol, not a hymn. “Carol of the Bells” comes from Ukraine, and Christianity Today tells the story of its fascinating ties to the Ukrainian national story:

“Carol of the Bells,” best known in Mykola Leontovych’s arrangement, is a shchedrivka—that is, it has no Christian meaning. It originated in pre-Christian times and is not actually a Christmas song but a New Year’s song heralding the beginning of spring, telling the story of a swallow’s flight. We do not know how this shchedrivka originally sounded or what it was called. According to one version, Leontovych heard it in Ukrainian Podolia; according to another, in Ukrainian Volyn. His first arrangement was performed in 1916 in Kyiv, but its rise to worldwide fame is connected with the Ukrainian national revolution.

Despite having fought several armies at the same time, the young Ukrainian People’s Republic suffered from a lack of international recognition. So Ukrainian leaders came up with the idea of sending a Ukrainian choir abroad under the direction of Oleksander Koshyts. The Ukrainian songs performed by this choir were to serve as an advertisement for the Ukrainian cause, and cultural diplomacy was to replace political diplomacy.

The choir went on a three-year tour, visiting ten European countries. They were heard by the American impresario Max Rabinoff, who in 1922 invited the choir to perform in New York City at the famous Carnegie Hall. Before the end of the first act, the choir performed “Shchedryk,” and this performance received rapturous applause.

In a review of the concert, The New York Times wrote that Ukraine’s music “suggested the colossal wealth of youthful and untouched vitality which had tided over centuries of the most tragic history in the world.”

That tragic history continues to this day, but so does the courage of the Ukrainian people and the beauty of Ukrainian culture. Please enjoy the Tabernacle Choir’s beautiful rendition of a classic song that has renewed resonance:

And here’s an NBC News report of a Ukrainian choir performing the song just a few weeks ago in Carnegie Hall:

Merry Christmas. Thank you for reading, and may you enjoy a blessed and restful holiday season.

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