I've heard that China's Santa Claus doesn't make his home in the North Pole. Instead, he lives in Atlanta.
In addition to chicken feet, machinery and other products, the Asian country is now importing our cultural symbols. The benevolent, bearded man with a red suit and a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly is now apparently in such high demand at Chinese shopping malls that they put him up in five-star hotels and pay him enough to live for a year. Seems like a lot of trouble for a taste of Western tradition.
Yes, it bothers me that when outside observers search for the meaning of Christmas, they are most fascinated by a fat dude who grants wishes, like a Buddha with a sleigh. But that's a rant for another day. More disconcerting to me is the fact that much of the world sees it as a foreign holiday, missing their stake in the story.
The truth is, Christmas marks the fulfillment of a long-held wish, that things would be patched up between us and God. For those who don't understand God's love or justice, this doesn't sound revolutionary or even appealing. Why does the divine care about how I respond to him, and how would I approach him anyway?
God knew this, and long ago, he appointed a people, the Israelites, to be his ambassadors to the world, carrying the answers to these questions and the secret of how to get back to him.
Nowadays, with America's stalwart support of the modern state of Israel and shofars making their way into Protestant sanctuaries, it's hard to remember how foreign God's original chosen people would be to us today. They were tribal, raising animals for a living and worshipping in a tent where the presence of God was kept behind closed doors. The cost of their shortcomings was ever before them, institutionalized in violent sacrifices that put them back in touch with God.
It's easy to see how "Immanuel" - God with us - was a breath of fresh air to those who worshipped him from behind a curtain of separation. After thousands of years of reaching up to Him, Christmas meant that he had come down to his people, repaying their rebellion with closeness, fulfilling a promise he made early in their history to send a baby boy to make peace with those who willingly became his enemies.
God Is Global
So Christmas is a Jewish story, but as God fulfilled his promise to a specific people, he also flung open the doors of his kingdom to the world. The exclusive club of God's fellowship was now for all, as the angel told the shepherds when announcing the birth of the chosen one,
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."We tend to forget that this was in the plan all along. Even the first Hebrew, God's original covenant partner, was chosen in order to usher God's presence and power into the world. As God said to Abraham,
I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.Born to a virgin in Bethlehem 42 generations later, Jesus was the conduit for this promise to be fulfilled. The magi (foreigners from afar) knew it as soon as he was born, and Jesus himself, though he concentrated on the lost sheep of Israel, later in life acknowledged that his Father would bring outsiders into his fold. His parting command to his disciples was that they go into all the world and share the good news that we can all be a part of God's family, taking on his name and sharing in his inheritance, no matter where we're from or what we've done.
As I've traveled the world, I've seen the various ways men and women approach God. Christ's invasion is God's way of spelling out the right one for us. The Jew who seeks a Messiah can look to Jesus. The ascetic Buddhist can redirect his desires to the source of their fulfillment. The Hindu who sees God in all can begin to fathom the wonders of his specific, personal plan. The Muslim who trusts in God's oneness and justice can also begin to feel his grace. And the atheist can trade cold rationalism for illogical love.
Christmas is not just for Christians; it's not just for Americans, Britons or Germans. It's the invitation of a global God to all people to partake in his plan to heal the whole world, establishing a universal community of peace and love rooted in him.
Wherever you find yourself in the world today, Christmas is for you and yours if only you'll take hold of it by faith.