This article is adapted from “Three Reasons to Share the Lord’s Supper on Christmas Sunday.”
The word “Christmas” literally means “the Lord’s Supper on Christ’s day.”
“Christmas” is a compound of “Christ” and “mass.” When Latin was the predominant language in the West, the Latin rite for the Lord’s Supper ended with the words ite, missa est, which means “go, it [the church] is dismissed,” or “go, it is sent.” Over time, “mass” became shorthand for the whole Supper, from which we are sent into the world on mission. Although we sometimes associate “mass” with the Roman Catholic Church, the word is also used in many Protestant churches, including Lutheran and Anglican churches. But that is beyond the point, which is simply this: Christmas is a day set apart by the church to celebrate Christ’s birth, primarily by sharing the Lord’s Supper.
Why is the Lord’s Supper so central to Christmas?
Christmas is a celebration of the Son’s incarnation in a physical body, which is signified by the physical bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. At Christmas, the Son of God assumed a body that we could see and touch; in the Eucharist, the Son offers his body and blood in bread and wine that we can see and touch. Christmas, a celebration of the invisible God made visible, is a fitting time to administer the visible sign of the Lord’s Supper. Christmas celebrates the incarnation; the Eucharist is incarnational.
Christmas is a celebration of the Son’s incarnation in a physical body, which is signified by the physical bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
Celebrating the Lord’s Supper on Christmas also proclaims the unity of the incarnation and atonement; the cradle and the cross; Bethlehem and Calvary.
At Christmas, the Son took a body so that he could shed his blood for our sins; at the Lord’s Table, Christ says, “This is my body; this is my blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Although Christ didn’t only come to die, Christ’s death on the cross was a central reason for the incarnation. In his great work On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains,
For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death in order that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corrpution might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection. (9)
There is a nativity scene on the front cover of the SVS Press edition of On the Incarnation. But a more fitting symbol of Athanasius’s work may have been a cross, since his focus is on the cross and resurrection. There is a fundamental unity between the incarnation and atonement. This is what we proclaim when we commune on Christmas.
Many Christians get riled up over the abbreviation “X-mas,” because they think that it takes the Christ out of Christmas, not realizing that “X” is an ancient Christian abbreviation for Christ (from Χριστός, the New Testament Greek word for “Christ”). Yet few seem concerned about taking the mass out of Christ-mass, and are perfectly content to observe one of the church’s holy days without the church or the sacrament.
His little infant heart was made to pump the blood that would wash away your sins; drink his blood in the cup.
Don’t let Christmas go by without receiving Holy Communion. At Christmas, Christ took a body to bear your curse; eat his body in the bread. His little infant heart was made to pump the blood that would wash away your sins; drink his blood in the cup. On this holy Feast of our Lord’s Nativity, the most important Christmas meal that you will eat is at the Lord’s Table.