Friday, December 24, 2004

Why Christmas?

For most Americans, the basic outline of the Christmas account familiar enough. Whether the details are pieced together from the Christmas carols which are incessantly playing on the radio this time of year or gained from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, most Americans have a vague idea of the basic Christmas story. One does not expect, however, for the general American to have anything other than a superficial understanding of the meaning of the Christmas account; however, it is amazing how little understanding the Christian has of the import of Christmas. All to often, the church has accommodated its understanding to that of the surrounding culture. Hence, Christmas for too many professing Christians has become a romantic holiday, a season of shallow, commercial joy.

The average understanding of the incarnation is nothing more than formal; the Second Person of the Godhead took on flesh and dwelt among us- that is a fact. But what does it mean? Theologians have recognized the radical truth of the incarnation, and have rightly labeled the entire earthly ministry of Jesus as his humiliation. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines Christ’s humiliation in the following manner, “Christ's humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.” The latter part of this statement is readily understood, but the former seems odd, the Nativity of Jesus being part of his humiliation? The very act of one who is “Very God of Very God” to take on human nature is an act of incalculable condescension. Consider Philippians 2:6-7, “Being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” The great Christmas hymn “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor” captures this well:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor all for love’s sake becamest poor
Thrones for a manger dids’t surrender, sapphire paved courts for stable floor
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor all for love’s sake becamest poor

Thou who art God beyond all praising, all for loves sake becamest man
Stooping so low, but sinners raising, heavenward by thine eternal plan
Thou who art God beyond all praising, all for loves sake becamest man

However, it was not only fact of the incarnation, but also the manner of the incarnation which vividly demonstrates Jesus’ humiliation. Jesus was not born in Rome, or Athens, or Alexandria; Jesus was born in Judea- not the most illustrative Roman province. Further, Jesus wasn’t even born in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem- not a prominent city at that time. Consider also the parents to whom Jesus was born. Jesus was not born in one of the wealthy members of the Jewish religious rulers, or born into the royal household of Herod; rather, he was born into an average Jewish family. Further, one must not forget the circumstances of his birth by Mary. The virgin birth of Jesus was as difficult for Jesus’ contemporaries to accept as it was for twentieth century modernists. The rumors of illegitimacy would shadow the not only his birth, but also the rest of his life. (Evidence of this can be discerned in later gospel accounts, especially in John 8:12 ff.). The place of Jesus birth in the inn’s stable is widely understood as humble; but his reception by the shepherds is overlooked. Shepherds were not the most respected members of society, so reception by them would be comparable to reception by janitors or garbage men today. Finally, the reason which Jesus assumed human nature is overlooked. Christmas is a holiday too often in isolation from Good Friday and Easter. The incarnation was not primarily about demonstrating the dignity of man, or better identifying with the struggles of men, it was about death. The Second Person of the Trinity assumed a body so that body might die. “Calvary is both the explanation and the fulfillment of Bethlehem” (Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1977), pg. 88). The cross was not the tragic end of Jesus life, but the intended end, and beginning of life for all his brothers. The great Christmas hymn “What Child is This” says,

Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian fear for sinners here the silent Word is pleading
Nails spears shall pierce him through; the cross be born for me for you
Hail hail the Word made flesh, the babe the son of Mary

Recognizing the road of suffering Jesus walked on all his life until his exaltation grants the believer confidence to face suffering until his exaltation in Christ is fully realized. A proper understanding of the humiliation Jesus willingly underwent for his chosen people does not diminish the joy of Christmas, but deepens it. So let us with deeper understanding focus on the true import of Christmas, and be amazed this season at the incomparable gift God has given.