Summary: At one time or another, most of us have had the experience of being on the outside looking in. More than anything else, for me Christmas is a celebration of inclusion and acceptance and restoration.
Of all the “true meanings of Christmas,” this is perhaps the truest.
When I was a boy, my relatively non-religious family had a Christmas Eve tradition. We’d have a formal, dress-up dinner, and then we’d sit together to talk, tell stories and perhaps read the Christmas story from the Bible. Maybe we would read a seasonal story or listen to some Christmas music. Sometimes we’d watch a Christmas movie on TV if one were on one of the two stations we could get in those pre-cable, pre-video days. Then we’d try to talk Mom and Dad into letting us open just one present. Every once in a while it worked!
When I was twelve, we lived in a rural area of southwestern Indiana right on the edge of a forest. I loved to spend time in the woods and pretend to be my heroes: Daniel Boone, Tom Sawyer and Tarzan. On the afternoon of that particular Christmas Eve, I took off with my buddies looking for adventure in the woods. Though I had been told to be home by dusk for dinner, when nightfall rolled around, we were having so much fun that I completely forgot. As I was trudging home about an hour later, it dawned on me what I had done. I decided to creep in the back door and try to sneak to my bedroom.
When I opened the door the first thing I saw was a cold dinner sitting un-eaten on the table. The second thing I saw was my father standing just beyond the table. Even under the best of circumstances he was a very stern man—and these were definitely not the best of circumstances!
Guilt and shame instantly welled up within me. I knew I’d messed up the evening for the whole family. I knew that I had been selfish and that because of me, my dad would be in a bad mood all evening. And I just knew that I was in more trouble than I could possibly escape. I could see the rest of the family sitting in the living room behind him. I just stood there with tears welling in my eyes, waiting for judgment to fall. For a few excruciatingly long moments, my dad just looked at me.
When he finally began to speak, I cringed. But what he said was not what I expected.
I expected to be berated, to be yelled at, to be called all kinds of names. Instead, he softly said, “We knew you were out having fun with your friends. We knew that what you were doing must have been important for you to be late, and we’re glad you were having a great time. We didn’t want to have dinner without you, so we decided to wait. Now that you’re here, we can all have dinner together.”
I was stunned. I expected to be punished. I deserved to be punished. I thought I would be banished to my room to await the heavy hand of justice being swiftly and repeatedly applied to a certain part of my body. But instead of being rejected, I was accepted. Instead of being excluded, I was included. In fact, it was as though I was the guest of honor.
I don't think I'll ever forget that feeling.
At one time or another, most of us have had the experience of being on the outside looking in. Indeed, that is our natural state in the grand scheme of things. More than anything else, for me Christmas is a celebration of inclusion and acceptance and restoration.
Most people are familiar to some degree with the story of the birth of Jesus. In the common lore, Joseph and Mary were forced to stay in a stable because the local inn was full. Biblical scholars generally agree that the word translated ‘inn’ in Luke 2:7 really refers to an upper level guest room, probably in the home of one of their relatives. Perhaps scandalized by Mary’s condition (an un-wed expectant mother), perhaps because the upper room was already occupied, admittance to the comfortable guest quarters was refused. Instead, they slept in the lower part of the house where the animals were kept. It was there, in those humble surroundings that Jesus was born. Rejected at the beginning of his life, Jesus was destined to be rejected once again at the end of His life. He came to His own, but His own people (His family, His nation, humanity-at-large) did not receive Him. Isn’t it ironic that the Great Inviter was so ignominiously rejected? Isn’t it comforting to know that He so thoroughly understands our plight?
Ephesians 2:12 reminds us that at one time we were all “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” By reason of our sin we were excluded and rejected.