Daniel P. Clifford
We are facing the end of dialogue. At least, it can seem that way in our polarized society. Disagreement has sharpened, and healthy debate diminished. Who isn’t angry about cultural issues and political developments? Too irritated to consider other viewpoints, many are turning instead to social media or news outlets that support their own positions. This tense atmosphere makes gospel communication difficult. And, of course, another significant communication barrier is simply religious ignorance. We can no longer assume that our neighbors are familiar with Scripture and Christ. As we lose these points of contact, spiritual conversations become more challenging.
At this time of year, however, we are reminded of one touchpoint that remains. Christmas is, or involves, a bit of residual Christianity in our social fabric. It will likely keep its place for some time because people enjoy Christmas. It offers not only gifts and food, but the chance to reconnect and remember what is important—an often nostalgic sentiment expressed in productions from It’s a Wonderful Life to How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The day feels meaningful to people with or without a trip to church.
Retailers also help to perpetuate the importance of December 25. According to them, that’s our shopping deadline! They have an interest in keeping Christmas a distinct part of the “happy holidays.” Crèches or cards with nativity scenes, perhaps with carols playing in the background, all help to keep the story of Christ’s birth in people’s minds. (Maybe the commercialization of Christmas has an upside.)
We can be grateful that a basic knowledge of Jesus’s birth remains in our culture because the nativity puts the great themes of the gospel on display. As God introduces his Son to the world, he also lays out major motifs of redemption.
God’s plan certainly stands out in Bethlehem. The onlookers rejoice that the child comes as the Savior God promised (Luke 2:11) who will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). We commemorate other famous births because of achievements—think of Presidents’ Day or Martin Luther King Day. But Jesus’s birth is celebrated before his achievements, because he comes in fulfillment of God’s plan to save us.
It even seems that God prepared creation for the moment of incarnation, like a glove is prepared for a hand. Theologian Herman Bavinck observes that, by making man in his image, God set the stage for his Son to assume and redeem human nature: “The creation of humans in God’s image is a supposition and preparation for the incarnation of God” (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:277). Along similar lines, B. B. Warfield writes that “the incarnation was contemplated and provided for in creation itself” (Selected Shorter Writings, 1:145). God made mankind in a way that fit with his foreordaining, not just the fall of humanity, but its recovery in Christ. Christmas brings God’s deeply-laid, gracious plan to light.
God’s love clearly stands out in the Christmas story. John 3:16 famously pegs Jesus’s coming to God’s goodwill: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” What an overture to a lost world! How fitting that Jewish shepherds and Gentile wise men would agree in worshiping Jesus! God’s people of every nation receive the Savior as an expression of God’s love.
The cross gets foreshadowed in this lowly birth. Christmas cards typically show an idealized stable scene—clean and cozy, almost better than the maternity ward. But the truth is that only a poor and connectionless family would have been driven to such an extremity. These humbling circumstances fit with Jesus’s mission to take our sufferings and death upon himself. The manger points to the cross.
A glorified humanity is also strongly implied by Jesus’s birth. He takes our nature, intending to display God’s greatness (John 1:14, 18). Along these lines, the church father Athanasius reflected that the body of Christ was bound to become glorious “when the Word had once descended upon it” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 4:53). If God takes our nature, does he not also intend to “advance” our nature (Larger Catechism Q. 39)? Indeed, he does. It was God’s intention to raise up Christ in glory and cause us to bear his image (1 Cor. 15:49).
Finally, notice that God’s overture to a fallen world comes with great gentleness. He sends his Son clothed in the weakest of weak humanity—a baby. God chooses to introduce Christ in a way that puts his mercy in the foreground rather than his judgment. This sets the tone for the gospel age. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). How gently God presents his Son to the world!
We need to bring this light of Scripture to bear on important issues, and Christmas might be an excellent opportunity. As you anticipate this year’s holiday season with family and friends, consider how the events at Jesus’s birth relate to some current discussions.
Many current cultural controversies have to do with identity—specifically, people’s right to determine who they are. The widespread belief is that we can make and remake our identity, even up to the point of choosing our own gender. This is hyper Romanticism, a deification of feelings and desires. It sees inhibition, not sin, as humanity’s great problem. Roles imposed by religion or society are straitjackets; we need to shed our inhibitions, discover our true identity, and let it go!
But Christianity sees mankind as created to glorify God, which makes obedience to God the path of greatest fulfillment. The incarnation illustrates this. Christ’s coming is a deed, not of radical independence, but of radical submission. He carries out the role God assigns him, from his lowly birth in a stable to his painful death on the cross, where he takes the penalty for self-willed people like us. Christ stays in this role even though, facing death, he wished it could change: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Self-willed people like us need Jesus’s sacrifice. We also need his Holy Spirit to change our hearts and give us strength to find our freedom in being faithful to the sometimes difficult roles that he has assigned to us—whether it be the calling of a Christian, the duty of a husband, wife, or single person, or the created roles of man and woman. Christmas illustrates how we find blessing and true freedom through submission to God’s plan.
Inclusiveness is a buzzword. Many people passionately feel that no group should be marginalized, that everyone should welcome and accept everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
Christians of course agree that people should be treated with respect. The Christmas story, for instance, implicitly condemns the marginalization of Jesus’s poor, connectionless family. Yet as Christians, we aim for something higher than toleration. We want what is best for people. Mankind needs righteousness, unity, and the experience of God’s love. The events in Bethlehem show how God’s love in Christ brings people together at a deep level, beyond mere inclusiveness. Poor Jewish shepherds and rich foreign wise men all come to worship the Savior. As they unite around Christ, they are forgiven and set free based on his finished work. They are truly accepted—by God. Because Christ teaches us to respect others made in God’s image, Christian or not, Christianity delivers a principled valuing of all people God has made.
Polarized speech has exploded as the culture wars are played out in the political arena. The battles are ferocious and even the observance of Christmas becomes a political dividing line. Christians are not immune. You may catch yourself noticing whether the card from your distant relative reads “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” and making assumptions accordingly.
The degree of upset surrounding politics, however, often points to a misplaced hope. People trust a conservative agenda or a progressive agenda to put the world right, and they grow panicky when their ideas come under threat. The Christmas story helps us here, too. The hope of the human race is that God has come to be with us, in Christ. Glory and blessing are assured, not by the policies of the left, right, or center, but because God has taken our nature. This is what the incarnation means.
Again, consider the shepherds and wise men. We can assume that they had different political viewpoints, but they gather to Christ and are equally forgiven and united in him. It’s the same Christ who equips us to be peacemakers and to be kind to one another—even the annoying people who watch the wrong newscast!
Remember that Christ was born in politically turbulent times. He came to a largely pagan world, a world full of dashed hopes. But he brought salvation, unity, and true hope by his presence. And he still does. May the Lord give us insight into the hope of Jesus’s incarnation, together with the opportunity and willingness to articulate it to people who need to hear.
The author is pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. New Horizons, December 2018.