It's Christmas time again! People celebrate Christmas in a variety of ways, some of them relevant to Christianity, others entirely irrelevant. As outsiders looking in, Muslims often have a difficult time extracting the Christian meaning of Christmas and why Christians celebrate it. Nativity scenes, bible verses, Christmas trees, and reindeer antlers all get thrown into one indistinguishable mix, and it's no wonder that outsiders might not understand it all.
I titled this post very carefully. Although I believe this article will correctly describe many Muslims, I know for a fact that it describes at least one Muslim: my old self. I did not understand Christmas as a Muslim, and I even hesitated to celebrate it my first year as a Christian. I am quite certain that many other Muslims do not understand it for the same reason I did not.
As a Muslim, I thought Christians were just celebrating Jesus' birthday, as if Jesus were a person just like any other. We celebrate presidents' birthdays, we celebrate our own birthdays, and so we celebrate Jesus' birthday. I could not understand the meaning of Christmas because I did not fully conceptualize that this was not just another baby being born, it was God Himself entering into humanity. Christmas is not the celebration of a human birth (though it was that as well), it is the celebration of deity meeting humanity. On that day, holiness met sinful men, and glory made its place with the destitute.
But why did I not grasp the beauty of the divine incarnation? The reason is simple: it seemed superfluous, even disgraceful. Why would God enter into humanity? To imply that God would intentionally lower His stature, depriving Himself of any observable majesty and supremacy, simply would not compute in my mind. I expected God on earth to function somewhat like a miracle-working dictator, demanding obeisance and performing wonders to extract it. Thus the questions I asked Christians (which I'm sure you hear often enough): "Why did Jesus not say 'I am God, worship me?', Why did Jesus eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, etc. if he was God? And why did he not save himself from the cross - would that not have gotten everyone's attention and worship?" To a Muslim, a humble God is the height of paradox.
And the last of the three questions above really is the key. I understood that Christians believed it was Jesus' death on our behalf that removed our sins, but that seemed like a charade to me. Why could God not just forgive us of our sins? That would circumvent the whole process of having to become a man, would it not?
It is here that the crux of the issue is found: As a Muslim, I could not understand the beauty of Jesus' incarnation because I did not grasp the gravity and depravity of sin.
To the average Muslim, sin is breaking the rules. It makes Allah upset because you've broken His rules, and you've disobeyed His commands. Yes, His rules are there for a reason - to preserve order, to promote His way, to help us grow, etc. But ultimately, sin is something that can simply be overlooked. Like forgiving a friend who may have transgressed against you, Allah can forgive sins out of his benevolence and that's the end of the story.
But in the Christian conception, sin is far worse. Sin shatters the soul and the very nature of man. Contrasted against the holiness of God, even "the slightest" of sin is abysmally bleak, not only deserving eternal separation from God but necessitating it! It permanently mars the soul in such a way that it cannot simply be "overlooked" - it results in death. Period.
So what does this have to do with Christmas? That God would not consign humans to the eternal death that they have earned for themselves; that He would suffer the humiliation of incarnation and crucifixion; that glory would make its place with the destitute; that God loves us beyond all comprehension and reckoning; all this was reified and established once and for all on that night, when God was born into this world.
God of gods, King of kings, Lord of lords, here to save us and show us His love at a tremendous cost! Emmanuel, God with us! How can we not sing His praises, how can we keep from celebrating and exalting our King? He came here, He loves us, and nothing could ever separate us from Him!
Hallelujah! And merry Christmas :-)