It is that time of year again, when Christmas lights are hung, carols are sung, shortbread is baked, and presents are wrapped. This is the season of Advent, where the Church prepares itself for the day that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. This holy day, as some would call it, is one of the big three; the others being Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We celebrate these particular days because of their significance in the redemptive work of God. In and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we come to receive the saving Grace of God.
As a Pentecostal, and more broadly speaking Protestant Christian, I always had a greater affinity to Good Friday than either Christmas or Easter Sunday. Of course, being human I always enjoyed the food, presents, holidays, and time with family and friends that come with Christmas. But in terms of my faith, or at least the typically ‘spiritual’ part of my faith, Good Friday was the main event, and the other two days seemed important only in relationship to it.
Why was this the case? I think it was so because of the forensic substitutionary understanding of the saving work of God that I inherited from within this particular Christian tradition. That is, as the theory goes, the main work in salvation took place on the cross, where Jesus received my sin, pain, and death (and as some maintain my punishment), so that I could receive his righteousness, forgiveness, and eternal life – what has historically been called the ‘wonderful exchange’. Of course, the saving work of God in Christ is not reducible to just this, and being a Pentecostal it has been repeatedly communicated to me that salvation is faith in Jesus that results in relationship with Jesus, and more. Obviously there is much truth to all of this, but the focus on the cross left me to wonder, what is the significance of Christmas?
The first and most obvious answer would be that if there were no Christmas day then there would have been no Calvary. This is obviously important and it deserves recognition. The saving work of Christ on the cross was only made possible because Jesus was born. But what else can we say about Christmas?
We are probably familiar with a certain sentimental and moral message to Christmas. This is the day that God first shows how much he loves us. He is born as a baby (and who doesn’t love a cute baby!), but such a birth is filled with drama, trials, and danger.
To begin with, Mary and Joseph are on their own in a town that was not their home. Birth is difficult and dangerous enough, but to be away from home and on your own and with no place to stay makes it even more difficult. As you read the gospel narrative you wonder if Joseph and the labouring Mary would make it to a safe place out of the elements in time before the baby arrives. Then of all things the Messiah and Son of God is born in a stable, perhaps surrounded by animals, and placed in a feeding trough to sleep his first night. Not quite the picture of royalty.
Adding to the Christmas narrative is the miracle of angelic visitations and a star in the sky to lead wise men to worship the newborn King. But the magic of this night is quickly transitioned into the dangers of Herod’s murderous edict and the escape to Egypt as refugees.
This story is filled will the horrors and limitations of human frailty and sinfulness, contributing to our appreciation of the significance of this event. We come to recognise the great hurdles that had to be overcome, the humble circumstances to endure, and the costs to pay to make this redeeming plan possible. Thus there is a moral message for us in this story: all of these details make us perceive more clearly the depth of God’s love and good will for humanity.
In the Gospel of Luke the evangelist tells us that on the night Jesus was born a host of angels visited some shepherds tending their flocks. The Angels are recorded praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is please.”(Luke 2:14 NLT). This declaration of peace from God to humanity through the angels helps to frame the context of the birth of Jesus.
On this night God has not just pronounced peace but acted to make peace. Now peace making is the effort to overcome the hostility that divides and causes violence to a relationship. Of course, the relationship that humanity has with God is not one of physical war. But conflict need not be physically violent for it to be real and damaging. Peacemaking is for all situations where conflict and hostility brings breakdown to relationships. Furthermore, one need not be the aggressor or the perpetrator to take the responsibility and initiative to declare and act to restore peace to the relationship. God is not the aggressor, nor is he responsible for the hostility, but in the birth of Jesus God has taken the initiative to act to restore peace to the relationship, this is a loving and gracious act of reconciliation.
Because we approach this story after the resurrection, and also after centuries of Christian tradition and theology, we understand that this act is one in which God becomes completely human. John puts it the most clearly, “So the Word became human and made his home among us.” (John 1:14a NLT). We understand this with the language of incarnation: Jesus is 100% divine and in this moment the second person of the Trinity becomes 100% human. In this act God took it upon himself to become human (recall Philippians 2).
Now God has acted in history in many ways. We read throughout scripture that God has spoken and acted through angels and more directly through his Spirit. Moreover, God has anointed and acted in and through human agents to accomplish many things, including: delivering the law, conquering enemies, pronouncing God’s word, and guiding God’s people. Yet in this moment God does not just use a human, nor does he anoint another chosen person as a mediator, the New Testament asserts that God actually becomes the human mediator – God doesn’t just act through Jesus, God acts in Jesus, in being Jesus.
I like to think of it like going to the business district headquarters of a large multinational corporation to resolve an issue. As a general customer I would expect to be greeted on that ground floor reception by a low level staff member, or perhaps middle management. It would be shocking if the CEO descended from her penthouse office to personally seek a resolution: surely someone else could do it, surely she would have more important things to do. Yet in Jesus we have God descending to personally make reparations.
To continue with the metaphor, the trip to the CBD and the encounter with a CEO would be somewhat fleeting. The CEO would act from the position, status, authority and power of a CEO. She would also ascend to her office afterward and from the asymmetry of the customer-CEO relationships I would soon be forgotten. Although honoured by the encounter I would still wonder whether or not the CEO understands me, my life, and my situation. But being a highly educated middle class Westerner there is still much that I share with the CEO. However, imagine how big this gap would be if I happened to be one of the earth’s poor and marginalised from a developing nation. If the difference between her and I were that significant I would wonder if it were possible for the CEO to ever truly empathise with my context and my story.
Many Westerners go to developing nations in an attempt to be charitable. We want to make it personal by visiting rather than just sending money or gifts. We hope that maybe we can make a meaningful difference to the person, to show that we care. You might have in your mind at this moment short term mission (social justice) trips. While the recipient might be grateful for the visit and the gifts, one wonders about the extent of the encounter, especially as the westerner heads back to their air-conditioned homes and many other luxuries. The difference is simply too great for either to truly understand each other’s perspectives. How could I, for instance, as a middle class white male westerner ever understand what it is like to go without food, to fear immanent violence to my body, to sleep exposed to the elements, or to truly experience systematic disempowerment and injustice?
It is one thing to send gifts through messengers, another thing to personally visit for a moment, and still it is another wholly different thing altogether to personally take it upon yourself to enter into the condition of the other, to become them in solidarity. At this moment you might think of those missionaries who choose to live and die with the people that they give their lives to serve. If God came geographically near to us we would still sense the ontological gap that separates us from him. We would wonder whether or not he sympathises or understands, or ever could, and perhaps we might question the depth of his love.
Yet in the birth of Jesus and his subsequent life we have God reconciling himself to our condition in all its vulnerability, limitations, and depravity. God empathises completely to the heart of what it means to be human in this world by precisely making our condition his own. This is perfect empathy, and one need only look to the cry of God-forsakenness on the cross to resign any doubts about the depth of His desire to know and connect to us. There is more going on than just forensic status change relating to guilt, this is about relational intimacy.
This act of peace making, this act of reconciliation, is to a significant degree realised at the birth. While we often look to the cross to think of God reconciling himself with humanity, we can see that this reconciliation begins at Christmas. God first reconciles himself with humanity within himself, in the person of Jesus Christ. The words of the angels on that Christmas night are not at all empty in lieu of Calvary. They have significance on that night because so much had already been achieved. Before any repentance or substitutionary exchange God has acted to cross the divide. In fact we often picture God on one side of the chasm caused by sin and humanity on the other, but in Christ God has crossed to our side first, thereby making a way to lead us back home.
If God could not reconcile his own human nature with himself, then how could we expect him to be able to reconcile our individual depraved natures to himself? Furthermore, if God could not resurrect his own human nature, and more than that to recreate it to be beyond death and depravity, then how could we expect him to be able to do so for us?
It is precisely because God becomes human in Jesus, lives a human life, dies a human death, and is resurrected as a new human creation that we can look forward to the recreation of our own nature and life. This is not to downplay the significance of the cross; it is rather to say that both are essential to the saving work of God in Jesus.
Hence the birth of Jesus is so profoundly significant to the Christian message and the redemptive work of God in Christ. God becomes us to connect to us to make a way to redeem us and be reconciled eternally with us. It is at the birth of Jesus that we first see that God has concretely acted to make peace with us. By fully entering into our condition God empathises with us perfectly, seeking to truly connect with you and I. The love of God extended to us is in true solidarity, it is personal and seamless. It is not just love that is spoken but love that is performed to reconcile. God enters fully into our condition and experience, bridging the divide and reconciling humanity with deity. This is first within himself, but subsequently Jesus makes a way for us to be reconciled to the Father through Him. It is on this basis that we can put our hope in Christ and be personally reconciled to God. Therefore, Christmas is a day rich in meaning and essential to the saving work of God in Jesus.
I’d like to digress for a moment and share a little bit of my own story. In March this year my beautiful wife and I welcomed the birth of our first child, a son. Like all we hoped for a healthy child but when he was born we were met with the shock of a significant health challenge. So apart from the joy of our baby, the early months of being a parent were filled with trips to the children’s hospital and anxiety about our boy’s health: including whether or not he would catch a lethal infection or if he was in suffering.
This experience enabled me to personally reflect on what I considered important. Holding my son in those early days, in the light of all that we had experienced, and looking into his beautiful blue eyes all that seemed to matter was making sure he was ok. All I could think was I would give up everything to make sure that he was well. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who has experienced significant anguish concerning the welfare of their child, or to experience the profound love that challenges your priorities. Whether or not it is the experience of having a child or having a child with medical challenges I do not know; but in any event what I do know is I now watch the news very differently than I used to.
While reflecting on the message of peace I am caught by the peace that is yet to be experienced in this world. Throughout this year and especially in recent months’ news footage has been shown from the war in Syria and the effect that it has had on families. You might remember the photo of the little boy covered in rubble sitting in the back of the ambulance, dazed and blood soaked. After having a baby boy I cannot fathom or comprehend what it would be like for those parents and for those children. We might be tempted to blame God; but this violence is our fault. Our world continues to suffer violence perpetrated by persons toward one another for which we must primarily blame ourselves.
I find it hard to fathom that while I celebrate Christmas this year there will be children in imminent danger and in want. I find it hard to believe that as my son gets to eat delicious food and is spoilt with presents there will be children who will have neither. I reflect on these not to make us feel bad for celebrating Christmas, for we should indeed celebrate Christmas and enjoy friends and family and being generous. But rather, to highlight the declaration of peace made by God to humanity on the night Jesus entered the world as a vulnerable and innocent child.
It makes me think about what I can do as one who has received the love and grace of God in Christ. It makes me think about what I can do beyond just celebrating this love and grace, but living from it. And it makes me think about what I can do to cross the divide, to lovingly encounter the other and to seek reconciliation; what I can do to be a peacemaker.
This Christmas we have a lot to celebrate; and I hope the impetus for this celebration motivates us to think beyond the lights, presents, and food. Happy Christmas
About the Author: Andrew Youd is an Associate Lecturer in theology at Alphacrucis College, and a co-editor of Crucis.