Merry Christmas! is the most common greeting heard in these festive days of the season. Christmas is the Christian ‘festival’ that celebrates the birth of Christ. In Western Christendom, it falls on December 25; while in the East, it is celebrated on January 7. Merry is considered an archaic word used mostly for this season’s greeting. It denotes ‘full of gaiety or high spirits: marked by animation or vivacity.’[i]
What is it that we are urged to be full of gaiety about? It is the birth of Jesus that is supposedly to be celebrated. And what a celebration! Generous gifts and sumptuous dinners; bubbly parties and lavish décor; Santa Claus with reindeers; manger scene and Christmas trees; Nativity plays and endless sales! If this were any birthday, the celebration may be in order, though the more frugal will cringe at the excess. Then, it is argued, it is the birthday of the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, therefore the merriment should be to the max. Never mind that most of those who celebrate have no conviction of sin, and no sense of their need of the Saviour. After all, as the Jackson Five sings, “It’s that once of year when the world’s sincere.”
Let us pause to reflect. What should come most to mind as the message of the birth of the Son of God in that lowly manger of Bethlehem?
There is nothing significant from the date. If there is any scholarly agreement, it is by negation – that Jesus could not be born in December! We know that the festive celebration merely took over from what it was in pagan Saturnalia celebrated in the same season. And December 25 perpetuated the festivities that attended the coronation of the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne, on that date in the year 800. As to the year, it has long been established as certain that the death of Herod the Great was in 4 BC. Jesus could not be born after that since Herod played a vital role in the birth narratives of the Gospels. The most current consensus is that Jesus was born in that year of 4 BC – an anomaly to say that Jesus was born 4 years before Christ! We can only conlude that the providence of God did not intend for the year or date to be made into a feast.
What did the apostles remember most when they think of the birth of Jesus? Other than the Gospel narratives in Matthew and Luke, there is no looking back to the event of the nativity in the rest of the New Testament. The astonishment falls on the mystery of, what theology designates as, the Incarnation – the becoming flesh of the Son of God. This truth is most emphatically asserted in John 1:14, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV). For the word dwelt, John employs the verb for ‘tabernacle.’ It may literally be rendered tabernacled among us. This gives a significant insight to the word glory. In the context of the tabernacle in the Wilderness journey of the Israelites, that pertains to the Shekinah glory that descended upon the tabernacle as a sign of Yahweh’s presence. Could we imagine the Israelites greeting that glory with merry festivities? The one time that the Israelites had such festivity was in the offence of the golden calf! For John, the glory that was most astonishing was that hidden by the lowliness of flesh – the glory of the Son of God, known only to the humble perception of faith.
How should this lowly assumption of humanity by the Son of God impact upon believers? There is no better passage than what has been called the Carmen Christie (Hymn to Christ) passage of Philippians 2:5-11. The most significant words are:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:5-7)
Philippians 2 has become a focus of debate surrounding the words, emptied himself. Since the verb in Greek is ekenôsen, it is given the name kenosis (‘emptying’). The question that has been debated is What was the Son of God emptied of when He was incarnated? Was it consciousness of divinity? Was it some attributes He was deprived of? Was He any less God during the period of his ministry on earth? All these questions are missing the point because they take a literal understanding of the emptying. The usage of the term in the NT is always figurative, never literal; (cf. Rom. 4:14; 1Cor. 1:17; 9:15; 2Cor. 9:3). A good word in place of the literal ‘empty’ is discount; not self-regarding; or the old KJV “made no reputation.” The thrust is not what He was less of, but what the Son of God became because of that discounting attitude – He became a Servant, obedient to the death of the Cross. As Calvin comments, “Christ, indeed, could not divest himself of godhead, but he kept it concealed for a time that it might not be seen, under the weakness of the flesh. Hence he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it.”
The mystery of this act is succinctly summarized by Augustine: Remaining what He was, He became what He was not. And in becoming what He was not, there lies the staggering lowliness that the Son of God exercised to be obedient to the Father, and to be an example to His followers of what it means, Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:4 ESV) Underpinning this passage is the implied contrast with Adam in Eden. As one expositor explains, “Adam in Eden ( Gen 3:5–7 ) grasped or sought to seize equality with God. In so doing he sinned and experienced the judgment of God. Unlike Adam, Christ did not think this equality with God was a thing to be seized or snatched. Instead Jesus embraced his humanity, affirming his creatureliness. He did this by emptying himself of his aspirations to be God, and accepting a life of obedient service. This obedience ultimately required his death, even death on a cross.”[ii]
Theology calls this the state of humiliation. One theologian explains, “Behind it, there lay two great decisions. The first, pre-temporal, was the decision of the eternal Son to assume the form of a servant and the likeness of men. The second, taken once he was incarnate, was the decision to humble himself even further. From this point of view, the humiliation of Christ was not a point, but a line. Its greatest single step was that by which he became the child in the manger. The condescension involved in that is beyond imagining. Yet it was only the beginning of the long downward journey through homelessness, poverty, exhaustion, shame and pain to Gethsemane; and beyond that to Calvary.”[iii]
This reminds us that the singular goal of this humiliation of the Son of God is for the mission of redemption accomplished on the Cross. Therefore, the object of saving faith is not the manger, at all – it is the Death and Resurrection of Christ. How many who celebrate Christmas salve their conscience with the thought that they prove themselves good Christians, who have no idea about the saving significance of the Cross?
While the manger birth is not the object of saving faith, it is a model of lowliness for the believer. Does the season’s tradition of profligacy reflect such lowliness? This is not to deny one a good conscience if he wishes to celebrate Christmas as a Christian. It is rather a challenge to the attitude. Are we seeking the imprint marked by the obscurity and anonymity that attended the birth of Jesus? This is animated where we emulate its lowliness while yet so amazed at the staggering truth that it is no less God who became a genuine human baby in the manger. This He did for the even lower humbling that it took to die on the Cross as Substitute to redeem sinners.
Merry? How about awesome mystery!
Meekness and majesty, manhood and Deity
In perfect harmony, the Man who is God.
Lord of eternity, dwells in humanity;
Kneels in humility, and washes our feet.
O what a mystery, meekness and majesty!
Bow down and worship, for this is your God
[i] Merriam-Webster Unabridged (unabridged.merriam-webster.com)
[ii] Paul Feinberg, “The Kenosis and Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Analysis of Phil 2:6-11” from Trinity Journal (Spring 1980) p. 28
[iii] Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ: p. 218