The economics of the incarnation.
The Creator became a creature to die and restore his creation.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
I don’t like the axiom, “Remember the reason for the season.” Christians like to brandish this phrase on all manner of social media as they opine about a society that has seemingly forgotten what Christmas is all about. The commercialization of Christmas has superseded the meaning of the season. But it’s not society’s job to get the season right — it’s the church’s. Instead of getting irate over a culture that fails to appreciate what Christmas means, perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror. Perhaps that’s what this season is all about — a time uniquely inspired to evoke the divine economics of a Savior born and swaddled for you (Luke 2:8–12).
Santa Claus has become so ingrained in our psyches that we often croon along with Sinatra, Cole, Crosby, Martin, and the rest without always realizing what we’re singing. There’s nothing sinister about crooning or caroling by themselves. However, the mantras of many of those songs, if left to their own devices, craft a disquieting system of compensation and indemnification. It doesn’t help that Santa’s most well-known characteristics bear some eerie similarities to the way our culture views the fundamentals of religion and God himself. He not only knows when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake, he knows your name, your wants, and your deeds — and exercises authority in assessing them in sacred justice. This jolly judge operates within a rigid system of right and wrong, wherein the good people get gifts and the bad people get coal. The law of this land declares “So be good for goodness sake” . . . or else.
But the reality of Santa Claus is even scarier when you realize that his gift-giving economics have become, for a large swath of society, the mutually agreed-upon traits of the Judeo-Christian God. Ole Saint Nick has become our substitute divinity. The God of the Bible has become a figure bent on rewards and recompense — giving good gifts to the good kids and coal to the bad ones. In a world under that protocol, Santa-God coming to town is a deathly scary proposition.
The economics of Christmas, as currently commemorated, play right into the collective psyche’s notions of strength and success. Santa’s bureaucracy of virtue appeals to us because its core structure lies at the very heart of mankind’s driving philosophy: be good, get rewarded. Christmas, therefore, becomes our tacit declaration that we can, indeed, be “good enough.” We can be the saviors. The winners. The good ones. The ones who don’t mess up. The ones who stay on the nice list. The ones who won’t get coal in their stockings on Christmas morning. We set the bar high and claim we can meet it — or at least fudge the results to make it look like we do. In this system, however, we’re afforded no peace, no rest. For my part, I pray we’re given the awareness and audacity to admit along with Zack Braff in his Wish I Was Here that we’ve set the bar a little too high:
When I was, a kid my brother and I used to pretend we were heroes with swords. We were the only ones who could save the day. But perhaps we set the bar a little bit high. Maybe we were just regular people, the ones who get saved.
We get the economics of Christmas all wrong. We’re not the saviors. We’re the ones who get saved. We’re the ones left for dead in the ditch of our own fallibility and pride. Instead of functioning as the springboard for personal righteousness, Christmas ought to stir us to our core and turn our attention to the stark, upside-down reality of Christ’s Incarnation. Because the good news is that One better than Santa has already come to town, and he was good for your sake. His name is Emmanuel, the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
“God walking on the earth,” says American astronaut James Irwin, “is more important than man walking on the moon.” It is more significant that God left his footprints on Earth than the fact that we left ours on the moon. That’s what Christmas reminds me of — a God who was okay with dust between his toes and dirt under his fingernails. A God who found refuge in human flesh and dined with sinners; broke bread with vagrants and died for the very people that cried for his crucifixion. “In binding himself to humanity in the Incarnation,” says Ian Olson, “the Son plunges into what is antithetical to God.” He descends into the eye of the storm of strife and sin that perpetually covers our ruined world. Jesus was born on the absolute bottom rung of a very lowly ladder — the ultimate condescension.
Perhaps treasuring the holidays — “remembering the reason for the season” — actually means remembering the depths to which God condescended when he appeared on this sordid sphere we call Earth. All the uncanny glory of the gospel is found in the business of the Incarnation. “The entire mystery of the economy of our salvation,” says St. Cyril of Alexandria, “consists in the self-emptying and abasement of the Son of God.” All its majesty is there, too. For it’s not just that the Christ child was born where beasts dwell, it’s that after he was born he was placed where beasts feed. Wafts of animal life filled the destitute birthing chamber, attacking the nostrils of the Messiah’s derelict family. The manger where Jesus was laid is, in fact, a signpost heralding the wideness of God’s mercy.
In arriving as an unacclaimed, unnoticed baby, God made it incontrovertible to those for whom he had come. Jesus’s Incarnation is a divine reminder that the God of all Creation and Glory condescended to the beasts of the field and to the very worst of sinners. The economy of grace isn’t bastioned by a throne but by a manger, the least likely type of structure to impart fear in its visitors. And so it was that the shepherds were unafraid to see if the angelic hosts’ “glad tidings” were, indeed, true. While they would’ve had reason to tremble if called to a throne, they had no reason to fear a feeding trough. Neither do we.
So, even though I’m not fond of “remember the reason for the season,” in a way — a lot of ways — we have neglected to commemorate what Christmas means. It’s not about Santa. It’s not about caroling. It’s not about the lights and the tinsel. It’s not about the gifts. Nice as these things may be, it’s not really even about family. It’s about the fact that God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The Son of God in a stall. The Messiah in a manger. Eternity in a feeding trough. The Creator became a creature to die and restore his creation. The infant Savior we nestle in mangers in our often unbiblical nativity scenes (the wise men weren’t there, people!) is the same Lord that would one day be tortured and bruised and beaten for all the world’s sins. That’s what we’re commemorating: a God whose economy isn’t like ours. Because it’s an economy of grace.