Well my faithful readers, I am back after a few weeks’ hiatus. It’s been rather busy, and this explains my absence. However, I thought that the imminent arrival of one of Christianity’s most important days warranted a new article. So here I am, bringing to you my thoughts on Christmas. Again, I was hoping to continue my exploration of how Christians should engage with this world, but that will have to wait.
Here, I want to make some comments regarding the nature and significance of Christmas. To some, its significance does not extend beyond the mad rush to find that perfect gift, or the seemingly interminable round of dinners and meals through which one has to go as one runs the gauntlet of little-known family members and awkward bouts of small talk and chit-chat around the table. Others may put a more positive, optimistic spin on Christmas time, but it is clear that the religious, spiritual and theological overtones of the season have been lost (or in some cases, deliberately ignored). That in itself demands a response, since I would argue that the marginalisation of any specific Christian references during Christmas (which, funnily enough, is a specifically religious term) reflects a wider process of neglect and exclusion, to which Christianity has been subjected, that has been occurring for some time.
However, it is not my intention to enter into that debate (not now, in any case). What I want to do is to focus explicitly on the theological and spiritual background to Christmas, which, when boils it all down, is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Although there are only two explicit references to Jesus’ birth in the New Testament (one in Matthew, one in Luke), it is a much-cherished doctrine within the church, and an important part of the question of Jesus’ identity and mission. And although brief and unvarnished, those two references contain within them the seeds of great theological reflection and understanding. My aim is neither to match that reflection or try and imitate that understanding. But by looking at these passages, I hope to draw out the theological significance of Jesus’ birth and what it means for us as his people. Along the way, I shall draw together various other strands of NT thought in an effort to do justice to the different images the theologians of the first-century church used to reflect upon the advent of the Son of God.
The first image that comes to mind is the royal advent of the king. This is especially apparent when one reads the birth narrative in Luke (2:1-7). The passage begins with Caesar issuing a royal decree, compelling all people who lived within the borders of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral homes in order that a census might be taken. And so, because of this decree, a young Jewish couple make their way to Bethlehem, whereupon a baby is born to them. Luke is making a subtle, subversive – and yet, when one reads the birth of Jesus in context, wholly apparent – point about the lineage and origins of Jesus. Already, when an angel of the Lord visited Mary to tell her that she would bear a child that would be known as the “Son of God” (Luke 1:35), we have the sense that this will be a royal birth. Remember, the term “Son of God” had kingly, royal overtones, and we should not miss its significance. What is more (and I must acknowledge that I picked up the following point after reading a piece by N.T. Wright), Luke has structured his narrative in such a way that the birth of John the Baptist (1:57-66) – the account of which constitutes an important part of the evangelist’s story – is meant to echo the miraculous birth of another individual in Israel’s long-line of prophets and royal heralds: Samuel. This may not seem apparent at first, but when one looks at the parallels between Luke’s account and the narrative in 1 Samuel, the point becomes clear. The barrenness of a righteous woman who, through God’s miraculous intervention, gave birth to a boy who would eventually grow up to be a prophet, a forerunner and a herald to royalty, are some of the parallels between the two passages. And when we understand that 1 Samuel is, at least in the beginning, about the advent of David, the true king, and Samuel, the herald who would announce him, we should also understand that Luke pictures the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus through this particular historical lens. For him, the birth of the Baptist is nothing less than the advent of the one who would prepare the way for the return of the king.
And so we come back to Luke 2:1-7, where Caesar lifts his little finger, forcing Mary and Joseph to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem (note the importance of Bethlehem as the birthplace of the true Davidic king). As I said earlier, Luke is making a rather subversive point. Although the earthly parents were compelled by royal decree to travel to Bethlehem, our evangelist is under no illusions as to who the true king really is. The one who ordered an empire-wide census was just another pretender; his power was illusory and fleeting. In an extraordinary reversal, Luke is suggesting that the real king – the real lord (Luke 2:11) – was the one born in a stable, in the dead of night, to a poor Jewish couple. This was, and is, the true king, the one who now rules over all the earth. Luke’s mention of Caesar is only significant insofar as it sets up a contrast between the pomp and arrogance of royal imposters, and the humility and sacrifice of true kingship.
The upside-down nature of Jesus’ royal identity is something that permeates the gospels, and to no greater extent than in the birth narratives. But the NT writers were not simply speaking of an earthly king who reigned over a merely earthly province. They were instead speaking of the cosmic universal Lord who reigns over all things in heaven and on earth, but who entered into the chaotic flow of time and human experience as one of us. Paul waxes lyrical about the great condescension of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-7. Now, Paul is well aware of the kingly nature of the one about whom he writes. At the end of the passage from which my quote comes, he speaks of Jesus in terms that ripple with regal overtones. There, in poetic form, the apostle speaks of Jesus “being in very nature God…ma(king) himself nothing”. Though he does not mention Jesus’ birth, Paul is adamant that this man was none other than the incarnation of the Creator God. Indeed, he proclaims that the equality between Jesus and God prior to the former’s earthly incarnation was total, complete, whole – indeed, not something that Jesus possessed by force or false claims, but by virtue of what he was, and is, by nature. And yet, he left his place of heavenly glory to take his place amongst sinful humanity; the king walking amidst his rebellious subjects. His birth focused and crystallised that act of sacrifice and humbling, as the true Lord began the final phase of his mission to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under him. This, finally, brings me to the second image with which I associate Christmas: that of divine sacrifice. Via his birth in a small Palestinian village, the one true king humbled himself in a manner, and to an extent, that is difficult to fathom. The life of Christ was one of constant sacrifice on behalf of humanity, and it began in Bethlehem.
The final image that comes to mind when I think of the Christmas period is the advent of Jesus as true humanity, which helps to make sense of the other two images. It was (partly) in order to give us a picture of true humanity that the true king condescended, giving up the glory of unfettered deity to humbly live amongst us. Here, the miraculous element to the birth story takes on new significance. What is striking is that both narratives do not spend much time on the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth; it is a simple, unvarnished fact. Nevertheless, there lie within these deceptively simple descriptions great truths that flesh out the already grand picture of Jesus’ identity. As with all the miracles recorded in Scripture, this one was not simply meant to be the divine equivalent of a spectacular magic trick. It contained within it theological meaning – meaning that not only goes to the heart of Jesus’ mission and identity, but also impinges upon our own end as God’s redeemed people. Part of the logic of Jesus’ miraculous birth was the fact that his advent effectively bypassed the sinfulness inherent in humanity. Rather than being the product of two sinful parents, Jesus came into this world as a product of the direct and sanctifying work of the Spirit. To be sure, he came in the likeness of sinful man (Romans 8:3), but that likeness did not include the intrinsic corruption that has afflicted God’s image-bearers. God was able to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak: on the one hand, he entered into the realm of human existence in a most profound and intimate way; on the other hand, he was able to avoid the apparent inevitability of human sinfulness as he sought to lead his image-bearing creatures out of that sinfulness as their model and representative. For Jesus was, and is, the incarnation – not simply of God, but of what humanity was always meant to be. That lies at the heart of passages such as Hebrews 2:5-9. It also lies at the heart of other passages, including John 1.
Indeed, if we read John 1:14, we find the evangelist, in his own version of Jesus’ entry into the world, speaking of the “Word” becoming “flesh”. Now, John’s depiction of the Word is clearly inspired by the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. And in those narratives, we find God’s creation climaxing in the formation of man. There, God breathed his Spirit into his image-bearer, and divinity and humanity came together. With the miraculous birth of Jesus, the natural and the spiritual – divinity and humanity – came together in an even more profound manner when God’s wisdom took on the fleshly existence of man, and a baby was born to a young Jewish woman. It focused the entire trajectory of Jesus’ mission in one spectacular act and set the stage for what would follow, culminating in the epochal events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If Jesus represented true humanity to the world – and by that, I mean the perfect union of God and man – then his birth dramatized that purpose and established the precedent for his ministry and the model he presented to sinful humanity. Thus, the birth of Jesus – in a word, Christmas – means the entry of true humanity into this dark world, a light shining in the darkness.
So much more could be said. For example, Christmas makes no sense without Easter. In other words, the Incarnation means little without Calvary, for Jesus did not simply model true humanity; he also gave his own life in order that sin – the one thing standing between humanity and God – might be defeated and man might enjoy reconciliation with his Creator. There is a strong link connecting those two events. But, since this is Christmas, I wanted to reflect on the events that set this ministry, this mission, in motion. Let us give thanks for the king who humbled himself twice: first, by adopting the likeness of sinful humanity; and second, by dying the perfect death for us so that we might be saved, redeemed, set free. We will celebrate the latter in a few months. Let us celebrate the former now.