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In this year of COVID-19, the governor of my state has asked everyone to stay home for Christmas. To be honest, it feels strange. For many, Christmas is a time for traveling. The same was true of the first Christmas. The Gospel narratives of Christ’s birth are crowded with travelers. Zechariah, the priest, travels to Jerusalem to burn incense before the Lord and is struck with dumb surprise when the angel announces that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son in their old age. Mary travels too, heading for the hills to visit her relative, Elizabeth. Then to Bethlehem with Joseph to give birth to the miracle child conceived by the Holy Spirit. Shepherds hurry into the night, leaving their flock behind to find the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Magi travel from the east by caravan to lay their gifts before the newborn king of the Jews, while Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath. Everybody in the Christmas story, it seems, is on the road.
Yet of all the travelers in the Christmas narrative, none comes as far as Jesus. His is a journey that is measured not in miles but position. “Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe,” an old hymn says. The opening of John’s Gospel clarifies that the change was even more profound than the hymn-writer imagines. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” John declares (John 1:14). The theologians describe this in literal terms as the incarnation, the enfleshing of the Word of God. At the incarnation, Jesus Christ took a human nature to Himself without ceasing to be divine.
If the theologians express the literal sense of John’s theology with this language, the 17th-century poet Richard Crashaw captures John’s lyrical warmth when he writes,
Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
The poet’s phrase “eternity shut in a span” measures the distance between heaven’s throne and Bethlehem’s manger. There was both an addition and a subtraction in the incarnation. Jesus took to Himself a human nature that He previously did not possess. The babe of Bethlehem was a real infant, as helpless and dependent as any other. At that moment, the creator of all things became both actor and the one acted upon. The eternal Word was conceived by God, born of a virgin, and laid in a manger. The Son of God became the child of Mary. By this act, Jesus laid aside something as well. In Philippians 2:7 the apostle Paul says that Jesus, who was God by nature, “made Himself nothing” at the incarnation. The Greek text says that Christ “emptied” Himself.
We should not see this as an abdication. Jesus did not cease to be divine when He took on flesh and blood. Instead, this was more of a refusal. He refused to cling to the rights and prerogatives that belonged to Him because of His divinity. As one translation of Philippians 2:6 puts it, Jesus did not consider equality with God “something to be used to his own advantage.” When He was made in human likeness, Jesus took up the nature of a servant. Paul’s language in these verses is deliberate. Confinement to human form was more than a symbolic statement for Jesus. True humanity was essential for the specific task that Jesus came to perform. When Jesus was “found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8). Jesus took on flesh so that He could die.
That death is the linchpin of the theology of the incarnation. Remove it, and the story of Christ’s nativity becomes immeasurably reduced, as does the rest of His life and ministry. Without His death on the cross, Jesus is only another wagging finger urging us to attempt what we cannot attain. Such a Christ may be a moral example, but He is no savior. Likewise, the resurrection of Jesus is a necessary complement to His obedience to the point of death. Without the resurrection, Jesus is merely another martyr in a long line of martyrs, and the gospel is no longer the gospel. The apostle does indeed set Jesus before us as an example when he tells us to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). But this is only because he presents Jesus as our savior first, the one who died for our sins and rose again for our justification. Those who do not recognize Christ as their savior cannot take Him as their example. Jesus is always a gift before He is a model.
Jesus had to be born to die. Without that death, there would be no remedy for our sin. Jesus had to be raised from the dead to make us alive to God. It is only by that resurrection that we can follow Christ’s example. This means that the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb are inseparable. Remove one, and the rest must fall away as well. It also means that the trajectory of our spiritual journey mirrors that of Jesus Christ. We move from physical birth to the cross to the empty tomb and then to glory. Only those who have been united with Christ in His death and resurrection can follow His descent into humility. All of this rests on the fulcrum of the incarnation. Without it, none of the rest would be possible. By submitting to incarnation, Jesus Christ not only placed Himself at the Father’s disposal, but He also made Himself dependent upon the Father to complete His task.
These days it is common to hear people talk about the “magic” of Christmas. Those who speak this way are usually just talking about ambiance. Christmas movies and television commercials imply that celebrating Christmas will produce a transcendent experience. Broken relationships will suddenly mend. Prodigals will come home. The broken-hearted find love at last, and all the ills of the world will be mended, at least for one day. We are foolish enough to believe this false vision, failing to recognize that what they are really selling is an atmosphere, along with the products that create it. We have mistaken the rhetoric of marketing for mystery.
What is truly missing from our Christmas is not magic but memory. We do not need more atmosphere but an understanding of the incarnation. We have forgotten what the original story was all about. In many cases, we have removed the original story altogether. We have tried to improve it by garnishing it with tinsel and lights or have reduced the original narrative to such a degree that all we have left is a string of sentimental images.
If we wish to know the wonder of Christmas, we will need to recapture a vision of “eternity shut in a span.” To do that, we must go beyond the manger. We need to travel the rest of the way with Jesus. From the manger to the cross to the tomb, and beyond. We will need to remember that Jesus did not enter the fairy tale world of soft snow and gossamer-winged angels that we sing about in carols and see on Christmas cards. He came to a world of hard roads and even harsher realities. The path our Lord traveled was not one that went from glory to glory. It was primarily, as Paul reminds us, a path of downward mobility.
Jesus began His life as a fugitive and ended it as a political prisoner. Kings and priests sought His death. His followers frequently misunderstood Him and, in His last hours, finally abandoned Him. In other words, Jesus came into our world, a broken world filled with disappointments. He came like us, in flesh and blood, yet without sin. Jesus took on flesh, knowing full well all that it would entail. Confinement to the limits of human nature. Restraint in the exercise of His divine power. And ultimately, in the Garden of Gethsemane, a refusal from His Heavenly Father to let Him escape the cup of suffering. Jesus did not do these things out of necessity but voluntarily. Nor did He do them to create a magical holiday season. Jesus did them, as the old Creed declares, for us, and for our salvation. Thanks be to God.