I hope you have a great holiday season, whether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus (which, in case you didn’t know, is a holiday celebration invented by the writers of Seinfeld, involving airing of grievances and feats of strength).
A recent survey confirmed my suspicion that, for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the holidays are primarily about family and other traditions. Our family celebrates Christmas, but I certainly understand if the holidays for you are all about lights, candy canes and fat men in red suits, and not so much about manger scenes.
Unlike some Christians, I’m not offended by the increased secularization of Christmas. Why would I want to force people to observe a religious holiday if it means nothing to them? I have no interest in mindless preservation of Christmas traditions, or even in referring to the season as “Christmas” vs. “Xmas” or something more generic. And what’s not to like about some of our secular holiday traditions? Only Communists don’t like egg nog lattes, and Christmas/holiday light displays are just plain cool.
I do, though, try to take advantage of the holiday season saturation to reflect upon the event Christmas originally was designed to celebrate — the incarnation of Jesus. With the possible exception of Jesus’ death and resurrection, there’s no more momentous occasion in all recorded history. The eternal, self-existent God injected himself into his own creation, taking on human nature with a physical body that was bound up in space and time. As Tim Keller said,
God has punched a hole in the roof of the world and has climbed in.
In no particular order, here are some of the things I’ve been pondering about that event:
The condescension of Jesus in the incarnation is infinitely more mysterious than we can imagine. Several elements in the story of Jesus’ birth are meant to highlight the humble — and even demeaning — circumstances. The King of the universe was born in the nowhere town of Bethlehem rather than somewhere more fitting, like Jerusalem or Rome. He was born in a dirty animal stall when everyone turned his pregnant mother away from proper accommodations. He was born in scandal, with Mary accused of immorality for having become pregnant before being married to Joseph. He was born in obscurity: a few common shepherds were the only witnesses to glory.
But these signposts to humility are just the tip of an unfathomably large iceberg. The distance from Rome to Bethlehem has nothing on the distance from heavenly glory to human flesh. Jesus is infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, infinitely glorious. We could spend eons learning of the depths of his power, wisdom and glory, yet still never be anywhere closer to understanding the full measure. It took infinite condescension for Jesus to lay aside that glory and be born as a dependent baby who someday would have to learn to speak and tie his sandals. While one day every knee will bow at the mere mention of Jesus’ name, when he came as a man, even his own siblings thought he was just an average guy.
Jesus’ incarnation was permanent in that the God of all the universe is now one with his own creation. I wrote a whole blog post about this last year, so I’ll just link to it here.
Born to Live Under the Law
Jesus had to become a man so that he could live under the law of God. For every person since Adam, our being born under the law was a very bad thing. Romans 5 explains that “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” In other words, because “one trespass led to condemnation to all men,” we’re under a sentence of death due to the sin we inherited and perpetuate every day. We aren’t deemed sinners because we sin; we sin because we’re rebels by nature.
For that reason, while God’s law is good, we have no hope of coming out from under that death sentence through observing the law. When our sinful nature bumps up against the righteous commands of God, we naturally rebel. Why then did God give the law, if men can’t be saved by obeying it? The “law came in to increase the trespass” — to reveal the true nature of our corruption. Rom. 5:20. Sin “produc[ed] death in me through what is good [the law], in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” Rom. 7:13. The law is a mirror that reveals the ugliness already resident in us.
But because Jesus didn’t inherit Adam’s sin, being born under the law wasn’t a curse for him. It was necessary that Jesus be born as a man if he was to be our kinsman redeemer, purchasing our salvation through his sacrifice. But it was just as necessary that Jesus live a perfectly just life according to the terms of God’s law because the great exchange in salvation has both a positive and negative aspect. In the negative sense, God counts our sin as being atoned for through the suffering of Christ — as Isaiah says, he was bruised for our iniquities. In the positive sense, God credits us with Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law. God gives us an alien righteousness that we could never earn on our own.
The incarnation was the ushering in of Jesus’ fulfillment of the law as the only perfect man. God gave himself because he was the only one one who could meet his own demands of perfect holiness and obedience.
The Body and Blood
There’s a direct tie between the incarnation of Jesus and communion (the bread and wine variety). My pastor spoke last week about one connection. He said we tend to focus upon the suffering of Christ when we observe communion, but God the father suffered as well by giving his son to be born as a man so that he ultimately could pour out his righteous wrath against sin on Jesus. Maybe a more obvious connection is this: without the incarnation, there would be no body and blood to commemorate. When we partake in communion, we remember that Jesus’ body was broken for our sins and that his blood was poured out to give us life. Christmas morning saw the birth of the same precious body that would bear the sin of all those who trust him as he suffered and died a bloody death on the cross.
So those are some of my noodlings. Time to grab an egg nog latte and do some feats of strength. Today is Festivus, after all. 🙂