God, the Son, had to become human in order to be a fit Substitute for sinners and take the curse of their sins. That is why He was born. The manger is meaningful only because it is meant to lead to the Cross.
Give love on Christmas Day… No greater gift is there than love. This favorite song usually during this season is made popular by the catching voice of the Jackson Five. But did you know that not a single line of that song refers to the birth of Christ? It has a reference to Santa Claus (Every little child on Santa’s knee, has room for your love underneath his tree!), but not to what this season is supposed to be celebrating. Its give-away message is probably couched in that line: It’s that once of year when the world’s sincere. It is ironic that it should choose the very character that can never be seasonal – sincerity!
No icon of the Christian story is more fashionable in this season than that of the manger. The baby Jesus in the manger – so “Christmas is for children.” Add the wise men (not three kings!) bearing gifts – so it is time for gift-giving. Lost in all of these is the very reason for the manger. Lost is the centrality of the Cross. I suggest that there are two paradigms that relate the manger and the cross – the first is the popular one, and it is wrong; the second is the biblical belief.
The Manger OR the Cross
The way Christmas is celebrated, even when rationalized as remembering the birth of Christ, it misses the significance of that birth. It is not because the baby in the manger had a halo to distinguish it from other babies. He had none. Like other babies, it would be crying and make a mess. The wonder of the manger is that this is what God became. The Bible gives that astounding statement: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). It is the Word earlier identified as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” New Testament scholar D.A. Carson insightfully calls the Word as both “God’s own Self” and “God’s own Fellow.” In theology, it is called the Incarnation. Augustine has this well-known summary: “Remaining what He was, He became what He was not.”
There must be necessity for such a condescension to happen. The very wonder of that birth is its message of lowliness. We can only appreciate that lowliness if we accept the biblical teaching of the pre-existent identity of the One born. He is the eternal God who chose to be human. The Creator became a creature. He who made all things chose to be One of whom it was asked: Is this not the carpenter? (Mark 6:3).
For many, the manger has an independent meaning to itself. When linked with the cross, it is a no-brainer to decide which one is preferred by the world. Here lies the problem. Even if we take the manger on its own merit, it challenges us with the humbleness of its character. This is not like the birth of the crown-heir of the British throne – announced to the world with all the regalia of royal festivity. It is the birth of the One who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Think of this when you think again of the manger. The insight of faith should discover to you the dissonance of the ostentation and materialism characterizing this season with the humiliation (to use the old theological term) of the Son of God.
But the manger cannot be taken as having independent significance. It has its reason.
The Manger TO the Cross
The New Testament is unambiguously lucid in its teaching on the humanity of Jesus. Anselm’s medieval query, Cur Deus Homo (literally, “Why a God Human”) has a clear answer.
As to what His humanity consists, the writer of Hebrews is straightforward: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17). He was human in every way – in all but sin. The reason given is to make propitiation for the sins of the people. The word propitiation is one of the effects of sacrifice – in a ceremonial way, it pacified the just wrath of God. Except that in Jesus, it was not ceremonial. It was actual, and permanent as once-for-all. In the simplest form, He needed to be completely human in order that He might suffer the death of sacrifice for the sins of the world. He was born in the manger, lived a perfect life, and to fulfill the mission of the Cross. The Manger is not a self-meaningful event. Its meaning is in preparing the Son of God for the Cross.
Thus Paul asserts: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5). Earlier, in the same context, Paul explains what this redemption involved: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us” (3:13). God, the Son, had to become human in order to be a fit Substitute for sinners and take the curse of their sins. That is why He was born. The manger is meaningful only because it is meant to lead to the Cross.
Thus, the New Testament Church is given an institution of sacraments that will remember the death and resurrection of Christ. While one may recognize the liberty of those who wish to celebrate the manger, it is not biblically mandated. Celebrating the death of Christ is mandated through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The Empty Tomb TO the Crown
The death of Christ led to His burial. As He promised, on the third Day He rose from the dead, and left for His disciples nothing but an empty tomb for them to witness. Through His resurrection, and later Ascension, He gave fulfillment to the long-awaited promise of the Son of David who will fill the throne and reign in a kingdom that will have no end. This has already began. As Peter declares in the first post-resurrection sermon on Pentecost, Jesus has fulfilled the Davidic covenant promise of being seated on His throne (Acts 2:30ff).
This is the real celebration of believers. It happens not seasonally every last month of the year. It is being done every Lord’s Day when the Church assembles for worship. It is remembered in an especial way when a believer is baptized, and when the community shares the emblems of bread and fruit of the vine – to commune with the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But yes, let us also celebrate the manger befitting its lowliness. Let us be amazed at the incarnation of the Son of God. But let us always bear in mind that it all led to the real turning-point event of redemptive history, and even of world history – the Cross of our now-crowned Lord Jesus Christ! Glory to Him!