Some years ago, a class of students was asked to write about the meaning of Christmas. One student wrote, "Christmas is when Christians celebrate Christ." The teacher liked the paper, but asked the student to change that one line to "Christmas is when people celebrate love."
What, some may wonder, is the difference? After all, Christians are people and Christ is love.
Yet there is a difference – and the difference is so profound that if we miss it, we have missed the meaning of Christmas and Christ.
Of course, Christians are people. But not all people are Christians. To be a Christian is much more than to be a good person. It's about becoming a new person, sharing a new kind of life – the life of God Himself. Christmas is not just about the birth of a child; it's about the birth of a whole new humanity. In Adam, all die; in Christ, all come to life again. We are made sharers, by faith and baptism, in the Divine Nature. At every Mass, as he pours a few drops of water into the wine, the priest prays, "By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the Divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity." That's what Christmas is all about. St. Augustine put it this way: "God became man that man might become God."
Preaching today too often loses sight of this fundamental dimension of the Gospel. And people therefore risk seeing Christmas as being just about good cheer, giving, family, and peace on earth. It is about those things, but only because it is first about God reconciling humanity to Himself in Christ and opening the way for humanity to share divine life. Christmas is a Christian feast.
And then there's the meaning of "love." Yes, people celebrate love at Christmas, but it is only in Christ that we fully learn the nature of love and find the power to practice it. "Love one another as I have loved you," He commanded us. The love we are called to live is a love that is revealed in the Christ Who gives Himself on the Cross, and a love that requires us to give our lives for one another. It is a love shaped by the first and greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Without the love of God, we cannot find the strength to love one another. And without Christ, we do not see the full revelation of God.
Love has a content, and that content is defined by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Love is not simply the good intention, or the context, in which we do whatever we think is best. Love always requires certain actions and always prohibits certain actions.
At Christmas, God calls all people to celebrate the love that took flesh in Christ, by believing in Him and following Him in the new, eternal life He brings.