During an end-of-semester celebration with some classmates the other day, our conversation turned to Christmas — specifically, the “Christmas envy” two of my non-Christian friends jokingly described to the rest of us. They told us how they envied the Christians in the group — our trees and lights and music and gingerbread houses – but were then quick to point out that so much of the season was divorced from Christian theology that it actually was possible for them to enjoy it, as they described it, “guilt-free.”
It was a good-natured conversation, and we laughed about the idea of Santa Claus, about a Jewish mother who longs for a pine-scented home in December, and about all the winter songs that have been co-opted by the Christmas season. And while I suppose not everyone would see that as a good thing, I'm rather glad they can find joy in the season, in its spirit of goodwill and charity, and that doing so doesn't pose a theological problem to them.
Yet as I read from the Book of Mormon later that night, I think the fact of that conversation was a big part of why I was so particularly struck by the words of Jacob, who explained that the reason he and his brother had spent hours upon hours of intensive labor engraving their records onto the plates was so their brethren and children would know that they “knew of Christ” and “had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming.”
Yes, the trimmings of Christmas most certainly contribute to the joy of the season. I love the parts of this holiday that are almost entirely secular these days – Christmas trees, hanging stockings by the chimney and drinking hot apple cider – as well as the traditions still firmly rooted in theology: “Messiah” performances, nativities and the shining stars atop those Christmas trees.
But I was reminded by Jacob's statement – recorded hundreds of years before even the event that would eventually inspire all that – of the obvious truth that the source of the truest joy of this season doesn't have anything to do with any of that. Strip it all away, and the reality of the Savior's life and mission – the hope of his glory that we must embrace in our day as fully as Jacob did in his – would remain the surest source of joy any of us can hope to find.
As much as I love the trimmings of Christmas – and rightly so, I think – take it all away, and we're still left with the man Abinadi sacrificed his life to testify of: a man who “suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation,” who “after working many mighty miracles among the children of men … shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.”
The truest reason this season matters is because it marks the reality of victory over death, of Jesus Christ's power “to make intercession for the children of men — having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice.”
It matters because “were it not for the redemption which he hath made for his people, which was prepared from the foundation of the world … all mankind must have perished. But behold, the bands of death (have been) broken, and the Son reigneth, and hath power over the dead; therefore, he bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead.”
The reality and importance of Jesus Christ and his mission – that's what Jacob hoped for. Who our Savior would be and what he would do for us are the reasons the wise men, the shepherds and the very hosts of heaven celebrated his birth, and it's why we still celebrate it today. And that, ultimately, is why this season is a joyful one – with or without the trees and the lights, the candies and the presents.
I am sincerely glad that the infectious happiness of this season reaches through religious barriers, but in the end I have to believe that the joy of Christmas is most real to those who recognize in the child in the manger their path to salvation. Whatever happiness we find in the trimmings of Christmas – and certainly there is some there – the purest joy of the season belongs to those who “believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth” and who in that belief recognize that “no flesh can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit.”