Keep X in X-mas

I see the title has offended you. Let me explain. You may still be offended, but for the right reasons.

First, a linguistic thing. You may already know that our letter X looks like the Greek letter chi, which is how the early Christians would start to spell Christos, Christ. So “Xmas” is not just a shortcut for lazy typesetters or a way for marketers to avoid a potentially divisive religious reference—it is both of those things, but not only those things. It has some ancient wordplay to it.

But I want to dig deeper into this abbreviation. In your high school algebra class, X was generally an unknown quantity. You needed to “solve for X.” You would turn equations this way and that until you could find the true value of this variable.

In a similar way, when the apostle Paul visited Athens, he found a big stone X in the marketplace. Well, not exactly. He saw a shrine “To an Unknown God.” In algebraic terms, this was the variable they were solving for. Paul declared, “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23 CEB).

We might see Christmas in our culture as one big shrine to an Unknown God. In this season, people mobilize around a lot of good themes—love for others, the joy of giving, peace on earth—which we can wholeheartedly affirm. But do they know the Christ of Christmas? Like Paul, we have an opportunity to reveal the God they worship unknowingly.

Knowledge that Grows

But we need to remember that Christ goes beyond our knowledge too. We are always learning more, “growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10 NIV). Paul prayed for the Philippian believers “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9 NIV). Our own knowledge of this X-factor, the Christ of Christmas, is always on the move.

So, to squeeze every drop out of this metaphor, let’s say we take our algebra exam, solving for X, and we hand it in. We’re likely to get it back from the teacher with a few red X’s on it. This symbol also acts as a corrective.

The Christ of Christmas acts that way too. When our growth is hindered by greed or pride or a lust for power, Jesus challenges us, just as he did throughout his earthly ministry. “You can’t serve God and money . . . Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” His words take a red marker to our lives, correcting our errors, but also training us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).


And if you’ve spent much time reading pirate stories, you know “X marks the spot,” especially on a treasure map. Jesus said God’s kingdom was like a man finding a treasure in a field. He sold everything he had to buy that field.

The Christ of Christmas is that treasure.

So whenever we see that marketing shorthand this holiday season, we’ll know that the X of Xmas marks the spot of the greatest treasure we know, a treasure worth selling everything for. That treasure may be buried under sales and decorations and traditions, but let’s dig it up and share it with those neighbors who desperately need to know this unknown X-factor.

Randy Petersen

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