A uniquely Christian holiday, Christmas is a time to recognize the most basic story of our faith. Here’s an inside look at the real meaning behind the season.
Editor’s Note: Christmas is a uniquely Christian holiday. Here, we present the most basic story of our faith, without apology. At the same time, we express our respect for all of those Americans who believe differently. We’re thankful that both God and the U.S. Constitution grant every individual the right to believe, or not believe, according to his or her own conscience. – Janine Pumilia
The yearning to connect with our Creator is deeply ingrained within human nature, which isn’t surprising. More difficult to comprehend is that our Creator also yearns to connect with us. That’s what Christmas is all about – celebrating the day our long-awaited Messiah arrived, in the flesh, to close the space between man and God.
The first people to visit baby Jesus – the king of kings – were shepherds working their jobs in nearby fields. Imagine their surprise when an angel and other heavenly beings came to tell them the joyous news of the Messiah’s arrival: “Glory to God in the highest, and, on Earth, peace to men on whom His favor rests.” (Luke 2:14).
It was neither the first nor last time that shepherds, kings and angels would figure prominently into the story of Jesus. In fact, the books of Luke and Matthew take great pains to trace the lineage of Mary and Joseph back many, many generations to David, the humble shepherd promoted by God to be king of Israel. It was because of this lineage that the couple, who lived in Nazareth, traveled to Bethlehem, the place where King David’s descendants were required to register for the Roman census.
So what is it that put distance between God and people in the first place? Sin. Put another way, the rejection of God.
Sin entered the world through Adam and Eve when they chose to do the one thing God told them not to do. In the aftermath of this choice, they felt shame. This drove them to try to hide themselves from God, but God yearned to bridge the growing gap between Himself and His children.
“For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [the Messiah] the many will be made righteous,” the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 5:19.
The coming of that Messiah is predicted throughout the Old Testament, in books written up to 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus. Many of these scriptures provide stunning prophecies about Jesus’ life, death and birth.
Practicing Jews knew the Messiah would come to the world as a baby born to a woman in Bethlehem, but that his parents would be from Galilee; they also knew he would come from the tribe of Judah, and would be a descendant of King David. They knew he would be worshipped by shepherds, that a star would lead wise men from other countries to visit him, and that his parents would have to hide him in Egypt to prevent his execution as a young child. Each of these things, and more, unfolded as predicted.
While space doesn’t permit the reprinting of the entire Christmas Story here, you can easily read it in Luke and Matthew.
The gospel of Matthew begins by tracing the ancestry of Joseph, Jesus’ legal father. It also tells of the miracles related to Jesus’ conception and the reasons behind Mary and Joseph’s refugee flight into Egypt.
It was the “wise men from the east” who unwittingly set tragedy into motion by asking Herod the Great: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2) Feeling threatened, Herod demands that his priests and scribes tell him where Jesus has been born. From scripture, they know the answer is Bethlehem. Crafty Herod then pretends to be interested in worshipping Jesus, asking the wise men to come back and tell him Jesus’ exact location, after they find him. When they don’t return, angry Herod orders all children age two and under, in Bethlehem and the surrounding region, killed. An angel informs Joseph about Herod’s evil plan, and Joseph escapes with his family to Egypt, where they remain until Herod dies. The Christmas story is told in Matthew 1:18 to 2:23.
The gospel of Luke opens with the miracles surrounding the conception of John the Baptist, son of Zechariah and Mary’s cousin, Elisabeth. Luke 2 records the story of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. Luke also traces Mary’s ancestry back many generations to David, who had received from God perhaps the biggest compliment ever given to a mortal: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart …” (I Samuel 16:1 and Acts 13:22).
God had promised David that the Messiah would be his descendant. “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.” (Psalms 89:3).
Like her royal ancestor David, Mary loved God enough to conform her will to His. Most scholars believe she was probably age 12 or 13 when an angel told her she would soon carry the Messiah in her womb.
“How can this be?” Mary asks, reminding the angel that she’s a virgin. She knows Joseph will not be happy and fears she’ll be ridiculed by her community. But the angel asks Mary to lay aside her fears and focus on the honor God has given to her; Mary summons the inner strength to do so. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she says. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38).
Being a devout Jewish man, Joseph contemplates quietly ending his engagement to Mary, after learning of her pregnancy. He knows he should reject Mary, but he doesn’t want to impose undue hardship upon her. An angel appears to Joseph and convinces him that the baby was conceived by God and is meant for a great work. Like Mary, Joseph adjusts his thinking and does God’s will. He marries Mary and rears Jesus as his own. A conventional marriage? Hardly. But throughout the Bible, God asks various people to do unconventional things that are well beyond their comfort levels.
By choosing to obey God and resist the power offered to him by Satan, Jesus makes a way for people to re-connect with God. Remarkably, he extends this invitation beyond Israel, making it possible for anyone on the planet to follow Christ and be part of God’s family – as sons and daughters, and not merely as servants.
Whereas God once provided kings, prophets, judges and laws to guide His people, a greater law came with Jesus Christ: the law of love. During his brief ministry of about three years, Jesus taught people what’s important to God and how to do His will on Earth. He also promised they wouldn’t need to rely upon their own strength, but would be comforted and empowered by the holy spirit.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father,” Jesus says in John 14:12.
Asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replies: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” This was the very thing Adam and Eve had failed to do.
“And the second is like it,” he adds. “Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40.)
Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus ascends into the sky and disappears into a cloud. Before leaving, he tells his closest followers to go to Jerusalem and await the coming of the holy spirit. Ten days later, on the Day of Pentacost (a Jewish holiday commemorating Moses’ receiving the law from God on Mt. Sinai), the holy spirit is poured out, as promised. It strengthens the courage of previously fear-filled followers of Jesus Christ.
Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, stands up and boldly explains things this way: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ … Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of holy spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
On that day, about 3,000 people followed Peter’s invitation, and the Christian church was born. Today, Christians anticipate the return of Jesus Christ to Earth, this time not as humble shepherd, but as King of Kings in full glory.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matthew 25:31-40).
As we celebrate Christmas, we remember that our great gift is not a present, but a presence – our reunion with God, made possible through Jesus Christ.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:4-10).
Embrace the gift!
All of us at Northwest Quarterly Magazine wish you a season filled with an awareness of God’s unconditional love for you. Merry Christmas!