Christmas. The term conjures up all sorts of things. Sparkling trees, shiny packages, singing, happiness -- all seem to be components of Christmas. In fact, Christmas has few indispensable elements.

First, there is the whole "Virgin Birth" thing. It's the start of the story, after all. Then there are angels who sing to shepherds (okay, the text doesn't actually say they sang) and tell them about the Savior. You have some wise men, some "kings", some magi who follow a star to find the King. These are all basic components of the story of Christmas without which it isn't a Christmas story.

Skeptics will question those basic components. It's not so surprising, is it? I mean, when the angel told Mary about the Virgin Birth, even she asked, "How shall this be?" (Luke 1:34). Still, it remains a fundamental claim in the story of Christ's birth that He was born of a virgin. "And, seriously, angels telling shepherds about Christ? Why shepherds? And angels? You have to be kidding!" Yet there is no doubt that the biblical account includes this part of the story. "Oh, and there is no way with this whole 'guys following the star' thing. How would such a thing occur? How would they 'follow a star' to an actual house? How does any of this make sense?" That's fine for skeptics, but it's still a basic component of the Christmas story, so we're leaving it in place.

To me there is one other basic component of the Christmas story that is too often missed. It is so fundamental that without it we wouldn't even bother having a Christmas story at all. This piece of the story is hinted at in Matthew 1:23 when the angel tells Joseph that Christ's birth fulfilled a prophecy: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us)" (Matthew 1:23). "God with us." If that doesn't shake up your thinking and stir your heart, you aren't paying attention. So let's try Paul's rendition of the Christmas story.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

I know ... that's not normally found in your Christmas pageants. Still, it is the Christmas story. It starts in the place that all Christmas stories must start -- with Christ "in the form of God". It starts, then, with God. It premises itself not on Man's great need or worth, but on the Son's amazing willingness to surrender His ultimate glory to clothe Himself as a man. It tells us the story not simply of a baby born to a virgin or of a Savior, Christ the Lord, or of a star that led wise men to seek Him. It tells instead of a Creator who made the virgin and the shepherds and the stars themselves Who surrendered that vast magnificence to take on human form.

"Oh," you might say, "I can see that, but it goes beyond the Christmas story, doesn't it? It includes His death on the cross."

It does, but the story of Christmas -- of God taking human form to be born -- is uniquely a story of death on the cross. You see, while we humans live life from birth to death, fending off death as long as we can, Christ was born to die. His perfect life was intrinsic to His purpose, but His purpose was that death on the cross. His sinless life made the cross meaningful, but it was the cross that was the ultimate aim of His human life. It isn't part, perhaps, of "the story of Christmas", but it is the point. The story requires that He be "God with us", that He live a sinless life, that He went willingly to the cross, and that He rose again. All of this was so that we might have life. All of this was, ultimately, so that "every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

I always enjoy the Nativity. I like to remember the Virgin Birth, the stories of angels and shepherds and wise men and all. "No room for them at the inn" is a good reminder. I like the story of Christmas. But if we are to be Christians -- Christ followers -- it is this mind that we need most to emulate. It is the One who laid aside self for the glory of God. And what a "self" He laid aside! And for what glory! This Christmas, remember: "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus."