G.O.A.T. stands for Greatest Of All Time. Sports fanatics like to argue about who deserves this honorific in different categories, like greatest player or team or comeback or mascot. Usually, it’s just a way to pass time during commercial breaks or blowouts.
For kids, and frankly, for a lot of people, Christmas is clearly the Greatest Christian Moment Of All Time. Mostly, that’s because of the secular wraparounds of gift-giving and Santa and decorations and music and movies. The Easter Bunny candy grab is nice, but that and a stray Irving Berlin song are the only secular forays into Christian feast days besides Christmas-related ones (and I’m roping in the Epiphany/Three Kings feast into the Christmas story, before you @ me).
But you’ll hear a lot of Serious Christians make the case that Christmas is really a theological prequel to Holy Week – the Last Supper-Crucifixion-Resurrection of Jesus – which marks the real center of the Christian story. I know a fair number of Biblical scholars who argue that without the experience of the Resurrected Jesus by the first followers of Jesus, this whole thing would have died out a long time ago, as just another story of a Jewish prophet who had his moment on a relatively small stage. Some would admit that even if Christmas was reverse-engineered, if the story of the virgin birth in Bethlehem was lined up to fit Hebrew prophecies from centuries earlier, after the fact, it was only because the encounter of the Resurrection left the early Church struggling for ways to explain what had just happened to them.
If your understanding of the story of us and God revolves around what’s called Atonement Theology – we are breakers of divine law who deserve to die for our sin, and God mercifully picks up our tab by sending Jesus to die in our place – then obviously Easter is the point of the whole story. So Easter, Greatest Christian Moment Of All Time.
(I haven’t been a part of a faith tradition that has made this argument, but there’s a place on the podium, at least, for Pentecost as Greatest Christian Moment Of All Time. If you think of the Holy Spirit as the expression of God that sticks with today, past the historical moment of Jesus of Nazareth, I think you could make a case.)
St. Francis of Assisi certainly took the Easter story seriously. His is by far the most famous example of someone receiving the stigmata, mysterious, unhealing expressions of the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion on the hands and feet. He spoke often and powerfully about the suffering and cross of Jesus, and sought to feel the love AND the pain Jesus felt for him and for all of us.
But Francis was also the one who really drummed up interest in celebrating Christmas among common people. He is credited for creating the first crèche, re-enacting Christmas in a cave in Greccio, Italy, with villagers bringing farm animals to add authenticity to the manger scene. And, theologically, you can make the case that Christmas speaks to Francis’ experience of God at least as much as Easter does.
An Atonement-focused Christianity has some boundaries to God’s love. The default is pretty individualistic (Christ died for my sins or your (singular) sins), though there is a minor tradition that argues that the story applies to sinful systems as well. The stuff about the “weary world rejoicing” or creation groaning as a mother in labor all sounds like poetic amplification of a faith focused on and limited to the faithful.
But an Incarnation-focused Christianity is different. A God who is Love comes to the world, not just to save humanity from its sinfulness, but as an act of solidarity with all that God created. “I AM” becomes “I Am With You” in a way that elevates the goodness of the whole package. Sin and brokenness are absolutely real, but if God is willing to become a fellow creature, to walk the same ground and eat the same food and pet the same dogs and hug the same unrepentant people, more or less, that we do, then all of it ends up being revealed as a lot holier or worthier than we thought. Easter forces us to look inward and reconcile our individual failings with God’s mercy. Christmas invites us to look outward and see the holiness of divine love expressed everywhere around us, even if we have to peer hard into the shadows sometimes.
Maybe the kids are right. Maybe the birth of the baby is the G.O.A.T. It’s at least a good argument. Merry Christmas!
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