The Child Who Came Among Us

Few things seem as confusing to our culture as the feast of Christmas. For many, it is the great feast of sentimentality. As such, it is our culture’s feast of feeling. We want to have the “spirit of Christmas.” It is identified with snow, with trees, with family, with giving and receiving of gifts. It is a remembrance, for many, of a magical point within childhood, likely out of reach but still there. It is associated with movies – some of which (like Die Hard) – seem at an odd remove from the feast itself. Gather all of the Christmas movies together and consider them. What are they trying to say? What is this thing that haunts our culture?

The vast majority of these Christmas movies have nothing whatsoever to do with the events described in the gospels. Christmas is thus a reference to itself (as a culture moment) rather than a reference to Christ or the Christian faith. Witness the popularity of Christmas in Japan, a country with only a 1 percent Christian population. Just a peek:

The popular fast-food restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), is a national favorite in Japan at Christmas. According to the BBC, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families celebrate with KFC on Christmas. During the Christmas period, the average KFC will increase their daily sales by 10 times their usual take. Often, families will have to order weeks in advance, or risk standing in line for hours.

In 1970, the manager of the first KFC in Japan, Takeshi Okawara, dreamt about a new promotional campaign called the “party barrel” to sell on Christmas. After overhearing two out of the country travelers in his store talk about missing turkey on Christmas, he hoped that chicken would suffice, and began marketing his Party Barrel as a way to celebrate Christmas.

In 1974, KFC took the marketing plan national and it became widely popular. Even the company mascot, Colonel Sanders, dresses up as Santa for the occasion. Many families in Japan view KFC on Christmas as a symbol of a family reunion. [This article is found here.]

Of course, the baby Jesus, is nowhere to be found in these cultural appropriations.

The Christmas story, on the level of history, is almost commonplace. Women have given birth to children in difficult circumstances from time immemorial. As poignant as its details might be (“no room in the inn”) they are still somewhat prosaic. Only theology can take us into the depths of that birth.

The mystery of Christ’s birth (just as the mystery of His conception) is the mystery of God’s union of Himself with His creation: God became man. Some reduce this mystery to a necessary step towards the crucifixion, in which Christ “paid for our sins.” This is a thought that says too little, and so diminishes the event itself.

In that the Child born at Christmas is God-made-man, His birth is also the birth into our world of the very meaning of the world itself. The meaning and purpose of everything and everyone, from human beings to the least sub-atomic particle, was already present in God from before creation. In Christ, the whole of that is born and comes among us. To honor Christ is to honor all.

Back in the 50s, the British theologian, J.B. Phillips wrote the book, Your God is too Small. It is a fault of Christians that our Christmas is too small. Sentimentality (some of which is inescapable) essentially reduces Christmas to a set of feelings associated with a particular day. This makes of Christmas a very shallow holiday (rather than one of the greatest Holy Days).

Standing before the Child in that manger, our questions should turn towards what His coming means for all things. Orthodoxy sees in the manager an image of the tomb. Christ in swaddling cloths is an icon of Christ in the burial shroud. Christ in the burial shroud is the image of the whole of suffering: all suffering, everywhere, for all time. It is for us not only to help and comfort those who suffer, but to hold them in true veneration, for they bear in themselves the suffering of Christ.

The Child in the manger is also the self-emptying, self-sacrificial love of God, the love that does not hold the world at arms length, but enfolds it within His very being. It is well-spoken when we call Christmas the “Winter Pascha.”

I do not begrudge the sentiments of the world, nor the enjoyment of the feelings that accompany this feast. God Himself did not begrudge us our sins and refuse to come among us. I simply lament the fact that I myself too often settle for a little Christmas in place of the full feast. May God warm our hearts in the cold dead of winter as He warmed the universe, taking our flesh upon Himself.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





11 responses to “The Child Who Came Among Us”

  1. Julie Avatar

    A friend of mine, who taught English in Japan for 3 years, was just telling me about KFC marketing Christmas there.
    Also, when Christmas is just feelings and sentimentality, we are often disappointed. Thanks for a beautiful post.

  2. Helen Avatar

    A blessed Christmas to you and your family Father and to all who read and participate on this blog.

  3. Andrew Avatar

    It’s difficult to fully articulate, but in discovering Orthodoxy the Incarnation opened up to me in a whole new way. I grew up in church and even attended Bible school. However, I found in Orthodoxy an incomparable depth of theology and wonder in the Incarnation than I ever did as an Evangelical and it began to tie so many loose threads together for me. Of course Pascha is the Feast of Feasts, but Nativity holds a special place for me now.

  4. Ook Avatar

    I guess this all comes down to the fact that holidays can be utilized in various ways, and it will always be that way. In Japan, bonuses are paid in late December, so Christmas (which is not an actual holiday there) is convenient from a marketing perspective, being kind of foreign and cool, and immediately before New Year, the real family holiday.
    Likewise, I was once on business in Beijing during Christmas, and as part of the evening festivities I was taken to Xuanwumen RC church by a mid-ranking CPC official whose boss waxed nostalgic about how he took his wife to the Christmas mass when they were just dating and how romantic it was.
    The person who took me listened to the sermon and commented that the bishop was a good politician.

  5. Byron Avatar

    Just yesterday, I was blessed with an awareness that, in spite of all my sins, Christ as a child was born among us. Nothing I could do, no sin I entered into, could keep the love, mercy, and compassion of God (even for me!) from being Incarnate in the world. It was, and is, an immense moment of grace….

    Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

  6. Christa Avatar

    Blessings and joy, peace to you all, readers and writers! I thank God for you, Fr. Freeman for being a vessel of Christ’s Love! Thanks for hope and grace made manifest by words!

  7. Hal Freeman Avatar
    Hal Freeman

    Wonderful Christmas reflection. I’m here in Russia, and we’re old calendar so Christmas is not until Jan. 6 on the Gregorian calendar of course. But I can’t get “December 25” out of my old American head. It was good to read such a thoughtful reminder.

  8. Nancy A Holloway Avatar
    Nancy A Holloway

    WHat a gift you have! THanks for sharing it with us.

  9. Nikolaos Avatar

    The mystery of incarnation is impossible to fathom. We can always attribute it to the love of God for man, but every act of God can be thought of this way.

    I find it easier to think of Christ’s incarnation as His desire to be physically amongst us and embrace us. Rather like the image we have of the father embracing the prodigal son. That image probably best describes our relationship with Christ.

    I think a contemporary elder in Greece suggested that even during the consecration of the Holy Gifts we should not fall on our knees but rather just bend our heads, because in that moment we are embraced by Christ.

    He is born indeed !

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    He is born and for friends and relatives on the Old Calendar–1/6 Christ is Born

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As I continue to contemplate these things in the light of our current “Christian” culture. A statement that, at best, been thinly disguised as political rhetoric frequently just a bald faced lie. Lies create Chaos in the life of the liar and all those in whom he is attached. That is why peace and order were so obvious when Jesus is born. He is the Truth who thereby brings genuine order. Order that is, in itself, evidence of deep salvation. Not the made up order of politics and culture and sin but deeply healing order of sinlessness and repentance.

    As He is Incarnate in us more deeply, chaos becomes an impossible path to follow. Only The Way, the Truth and the Life are acceptable. Even so most struggle with becoming truthful and seeking the healing that comes by Grace.

    It is not sentimental at all but so deep it can be shame inducing to the point of laughing and distancing in sentimentality, even judgmental additudes both for and against. Chaos.

    May our newborn Lord lead us all to Himself and His Joy and forgiveness, hopefully, before the last minute of our embodied existence.

    Christ is Born! Glorify Him! Each of us as best we might in our salvific journey.

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