This is not a post yelling at people for taking Christ out of Christmas. Nor am I going to take a poke at the commercialization of Christmas though it is out of control. As good and fun as it is to give gifts, attend parties, sing about Santa Claus, dress in red, and celebrate Christ’s birth, it’s more profound to recognize that Christmas is about God becoming human. In other words, Christmas is more about the incarnation of Jesus than about the birth of Jesus.
We’re just messed up when it comes to understanding Christmas. For example:
We think Mary was just an empty vessel God used to bring Jesus into the world. Nothing more. Her total devotion to God in the Temple is forgotten. Her purity is dismissed. That she is to be called “blessed” by every generation is rejected. The fact that God took human flesh from Mary to become a human being is new information to most Christians.
We also think it’s critical that we get all the details of that first Christmas night exactly right. People argue over the exact birth place of Jesus – manger, cave, home, barn, etc. What was Joseph’s role? Since no exact time of year is given in scripture, people quibble over an exact date – spring, winter, summer or fall? December or January? Pagan holiday? December 25? There’s debate over the timing of the Magi’s visit. Yet, no Christmas details are given in Mark. Add that early Christian writers were more interested in Jesus’ death and resurrection than in his birth and you’ve got quite a debate on your hands. If only Matthew and Luke could have been more specific about all these “necessary” details.
We wonder why the Gospel writers provide scant information about the birth itself. Matthew records that Mary “brought forth a Son” and Luke writes, “she brought forth her first-born Son…” That’s it. There are only two short phrases in the Gospels about Jesus’ birth. We’d like to know how long Mary was in labor or Jesus’ height and weight. Was it an easy delivery? Who assisted? Any complications? What time? How well are mommy and baby doing? Sorry. He is born. Enough said.
We’re just messed up when it comes to the Christmas story and Christmas itself. Could it be that the birth of Jesus is not the real story? Could the significance of Jesus’ birth lie elsewhere, not in the details? I think so.
Simply put, the real story of Christmas is that God becomes flesh and blood. He is Emmanuel – God with us in the form of a human baby.
Examples in Scripture
Gabriel explains to highly-favored Mary that she will give birth to a son who is named Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Most High and be given his father David’s throne, rule the house of Jacob, and have an everlasting kingdom. He is the Son of God though born of a human being.
Elizabeth calls Jesus before His birth, “my Lord.”
Matthew comments that Jesus fulfills Isiah’s prophecy that “the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is interpreted [literally] ‘with us, God.’”
The shepherds are told that Jesus is a Savior, the Anointed One, and Lord. The details given to the shepherds are a “sign” to the truth the angels declare.
In other words, there’s more said about who Jesus is than his actual birth. That needs to be our focus as well.
The Significance of the Incarnation
I fear that with the focus on Jesus’ birth, the understanding of Jesus’ incarnation is lost. Modern Christian culture and her people have become so narrowly enamored with the “birth-of-Jesus event “ that His being and purpose have grown fuzzy on the periphery.
Early Christian writers, unfettered by modern ideas or concerns, knew what God coming in the flesh meant. A good example of this is found in the writings of St. Athanasius (296-373) in his work entitled On the Incarnation. He states that due to the corruption of the human race with resulting death, Jesus Christ took on flesh so humans could be made incorruptible through life in Christ.
Pitying our race, moved with compassion for our own limitations, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father – a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.
The significance of Christ’s first coming lies in the fact that He takes on flesh rather than the fact that he is born. Obviously, His birth and physical development are not insignificant. God didn’t just appear as a mature young man. Yet, His simple birth, amazing life, and confounding death only make sense in light of the incarnation.
I can’t help myself. Here are a couple more beautiful and significant excerpts from St. Athanasius on God becoming flesh, the incarnation:
The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained all things Himself. In creation He is present everywhere, yet is distinct in being from it; ordering, directing, giving life to all, containing all, yet is He Himself the Uncontained, existing solely in His Father.
At one and the same time – this is the wonder – as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father. Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it. For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it.
Glorious incarnation indeed! It must not be ignored.
Irenaeus of Lyons, born in 130 AD in Asia Minor and dying as a martyr in the third century, fought against Gnosticism recorded in Against the Heresies. He taught that the flesh and blood which the Gnostics despised, was assumed by God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Irenaeus provides multiple reasons for the incarnation, one of which is:
It was for this reason that the Word of God, though perfect, became a child in solidarity with mankind. He did not do this for His own sake but because of the state of childhood in which man then existed. He wanted to be received in a way that suited man’s capacity to receive.
He most famously wrote: “In His immeasurable love, He became what we are in order to make us what He is.” God became like a human so a human can become like God. The implications of the incarnation challenge your very being. This reality gets lost if your focus is only on Christ’s birth.
Again, in the writings of these early Christian theologians and in the ongoing unified witness of the Church, Christ’s coming to earth was a celebration of His incarnation not His birth. Be cautious to not let Luke 2 overwhelm Philippians 2.
This Christmas, I hope we all live more fully into the reality of Christ’s incarnation. He became what we are in order to make us what He is. Thanks be to God.