As we journey through Advent, toward the celebration of Christmas, we have a wonderful opportunity to stop and consider the reality we are celebrating. While we are used to the cultural battles over Christmas, we have even in the church, I fear, lost the truth of these holy days. To illustrate what I mean and set the stage for my reflections, allow me to tell a story.
We stood beside a Christmas tree in the basement of the church. Jeff (not his real name) and I were talking about the children’s nativity program we had just enjoyed in the sanctuary. The cast of characters had been the familiar one—wise men in gold foil crowns, angels with crepe paper and glitter wings, and shepherds wearing bathrobes and towel head coverings. And of course Mary and Joseph and someone’s baby doll as Jesus were the center of attention.
Jeff, with a wistful look on his face, said, “You know, pastor, times like tonight put Christmas in the right perspective, don’t they.”
“What do you mean,” I asked.
He turned his gaze toward me and replied, “That Christmas should remind us of all that is good and innocent about our world. Celebrating the birthday of Jesus is such a wonderful thing for us to do. It can really bring out the “child” in us all. God has to be happy with that.”
Just moments later at the urging of the director of the nativity program people in the fellowship hall gushed forth with song: “Happy birthday, to you. Happy birthday, to you. Happy birthday, dear Jesus, Happy birthday to you.”
Remembering that moment across the years, I have realized how such well-intentioned sentimentality, far from putting Christmas into “the right perspective” as my friend suggested, actually dilutes the true mystery and wonder of Christ’s mass. It misses the real message of the advent and forgets that the meaning of Bethlehem and the babe laid in the manger is far greater than we could ever fully comprehend. Infinitely more wonderful is its message than simply the “birthday of Jesus.”
When one looks into Christian history, it becomes obvious that marking the birth of Jesus was not—as an date—seen as a critical theological issue for earliest Christians. Think about the focus of the four gospels. They give it scant (but very important) attention in only two of the evangelists’ testimonies, name Matthew and Luke. However, extensive attention to his passion, death and resurrection is found in all of them. Among the most important writers who endeavored to explain and defend Christianity in the second century, Irenaeus and Tertullian, there is no mention of birth celebrations for Jesus in the list of Christian feasts. Origen of Alexandria, who lived from c. 185 – 264, mocked the Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries and went so far as to say it would be wrong for Christians to celebrate Christ’s birth the way that earthly kings were remembered, remarking that in Scripture sinners not saints celebrate their birthdays.
Not all of Origen’s contemporaries shared his dismissive outlook, however. Clement of Alexandria c 150 – 215) informs us that there was a real interest among believers in being able to mark the birth of the Savior, noting that May 20 was first identified by some as the proper day, as well as April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) favored January 2. Among others, March 25 was preferred, and an even a latter day in the year was thought more precise by many: November 17, November 20 had champions.
The date we now observed, December 25, as the official feast day for worship around the birth of Jesus Christ has associated with its establishment a long and very interesting story. It became official in Western Christian practice only in 336. This date coincided with the Roman celebration of the winter solstice and the inauguration of the sun god’s beginning to wax again. The oft- touted theory that Christmas is festival for Christian faith that is of pagan influence, however, is simply ill-conceived and historically inaccurate. Although, Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and “rebirth” of the sun-god and Jesus’ birth, they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. (We know that there was interest in his birth date much earlier, even if there was no official festival established.) Instead, their view was that the church had simply come to the realization that December 25 was the date of Jesus’ birth. This was not a choice by the church but a recognition of God’s providential irony—natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan god. They could, therefore, encourage Christians to celebrate the incarnation of God’s true and only Son at the same time their pagan neighbors were honoring a myth.
What is obvious, however, when one reads all of the early theologians and fathers is that the reality of his existence as a real man and the import and implications of his identity as the Son of God was far more important than precision about his actual date of birth. This, I believe, is the reason Christmas, as a Christian holiday, was slow to be named and given a specific date for celebration. The real interest for our forebears in the faith was the great mystery of Christ’s identity as God Incarnate (John 1:14), along with the work he came to do in saving God’s sin-wrecked creation as the gift of God’s grace to the human race. The earliest Christians – even those who designated Christmas as a feast – were only interested in finding a time to rejoice over the birth of Jesus because they wished have another way to give worship the incarnate and eternal Son of God, as well as celebrate the wondrous salvation of God.
They understood and believed deeply, of course, Jesus was indeed truly and physically born of Mary. But his birth was miraculous, not simply because she was a virgin, but by the Holy Spirit’s work, he was in Mary’s womb “the Word made flesh.” Jesus was the human name given to the One who is without any beginning; and his conception and birth were merely the “beginning” of God’s gracious gift to us. Whatever the date of his nativity, his birth is not like any other—and not merely because he was born of a virgin. The wonder of the holy season established to remember, relish, and rejoice is that Jesus is indeed the God-Man – the only One in whom God has joined Himself to our human need and struggle. Pondering the meaning of this awe-inspiring mystery—not so much when it occurred but that it actually happened—is the deepest calling that Christmas places upon our lives. Jesus’ delivery from Mary’s womb into the world is only significant for us because of who he is—God Incarnate.
This year, we should take our cue from our ancient brothers and sisters. Learning to think about, speak of, and worship God in the light of the Incarnation is, therefore, our most important task at Christmas. God’s glad tidings to the world are the only good news the human race has. Christmas is not a reminder of all that is good and innocent, but an announcement that our sin-wrecked world, filled with suffering, evil, injustice, and pain, is not left to its own devices. It is so easy to forget that sinners need more than to hear that God forgives us. If that is all our Gospel says, then it is only a comforting word—not a glorious hope. Forgiven sinners who cannot be different are merely people who continue to hurt others and themselves, but with a better conscience.
While I am glad for God’s forgiveness, my greater hope is found in what Christmas reminds us of. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This proclamation—and Christmas—insists that we receive the presence of the God-Man in our lives, for only in him may our true malady be healed. The reality that the Word of God became flesh is reflected in the Scriptural testimony to the Virgin Birth of Jesus. No mere antiquated superstition from which enlightened modern minds may be relieved, this doctrine is a declaration by the conception, birth, and life of the baby in the manger, who becomes the man on the cross, God’s divine life has been reunited with our fallen humanity. It is in Mary’s womb that the work of God’s saving grace begins, not simply at the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry.
Jesus is the only savior of the world, the only mediator between God and his human creatures, and the only Way to the Father because only he is the one in whom God and humanity meet. His teaching only has a claim upon us because he is the very Word of God made one of us. Sacrificing his life is only salvific because of who he is. The resurrection from the dead and the glorious transformation of his human body are the result of the divine life that was united in him with the frailty and finitude of human existence. The Word made flesh: this is the glorious meaning of the Virgin Birth and the wonderment of Christmas.
He came to our world as a real human man and bore all of our human need. The importance of his being born, even though he is the Eternal Son of God, is in the absolute identification with us that it signifies. The Son of God, to utilize the rather bloodless language of biological science, became a zygote (first through third day); then a blastocyst (second day through second week); then an embryo (third through eighth week); then a fetus (9th week until birth). And he was born a true and fully human infant, with absolute dependence upon Mary and Joseph. He grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. No part of our lives, therefore, is left untouched by divine grace and God’s holy life.
Why something as profound and as mind-bending as God becoming human? As St Athenasius in the early 4th century declares to us in De incarnation Verbi Dei (On the Incarnation),the human condition, , is not merely one of being guilty of breaking God’s laws, but one of relinquishing God’s life giving grace in our created nature as his image. If we had merely been guilty of offending God’s sovereign Lordship as law giver our dilemma could have been addressed by mere repentance. But, something far worse had happened. Turning from God in the conceit that we could sustain and fulfill the very lives that we had (have) only by God’s creating and sustaining grace, we abandoned the life giving presence of the Holy One who had made us. Through our sinfulness and our calamitous fall from the exalted state of being made in the image and after the likeness of God, Athenasius reminds us by echoing St Paul’s teaching in Romans 5: 12ff, the human race “was in the process of destruction.”
Athenasius marvels in this majesterial work at the astonishing inscrutable truth—the Word of God (God’s Son) became flesh:
“What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing. . . For he alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father. . .
For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. . .
Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man.”
So much more than a birthday celebration; far greater than a reminder of all that is good and innocent in the world; vastly better than brining out the child in all of us, Christmas beckons us all to remember that the child who is born of the Virgin is God’s own Son. In him, the Word of God by whom we were called into being and for whom we were made, but whom we betrayed and rejected in our sinful folly, has restored to us the possibility of God’s glory and holy life. All human beings are subjects of this gracious offering. No one is beyond hope. And our salvation is so much more than merely being forgiven.
Christmas should remind us that God the Son in all his holiness, purity, and power has restored to us what was lost—the presence of God in our lives. Death is overcome, both temporal and eternal. Our corruptible lives are made incorruptible. Our lostness is wiped out in that we have been found. The emptiness of human existence left to its own devices is no more. To be saved, then, is to enter into a new reality. We do not merely live in God’s forgiveness while we await being delivered from the reality of this world. That new existence —which is salvation—is the grace of God transforming and beginning to make us holy. Even more, it is to live in the promise that “when he (Jesus) is revealed (at the end) we shall be like him.” How can this be? We know this, because he became like us. That’s Christmas.