Why Christmas Matters

Christmas is quite simply the most significant holiday in the world.  It would be difficult to come up with a single day or event that is more celebrated globally than Christmas.  And, in a way, every single human being celebrates Christmas every single day whether they like it or not, as our very calender is a recognition of that day when Christ came to the world: Anno Domini Nostri Iesu (Jesu) Christi (”In the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ”).

But what is it about this day?  Why do people all over the world give gifts to one another?  Is it merely a day celebrating commerce transactions?

Clearly, there is much more to Christmas day.

“Christmas” derives from “Christ Mass.”  Who and What IS Christ, and why would anyone celebrate His birth?  What is a “Christ”?

The best place to begin is usually at the beginning.  So let us turn to the book of beginnings, the Book of Genesis.  We find the parents of the human race  in a terrible dilemma of their own making.  A Deceiver had crawled in their midst in the form of a serpent, and had so twisted the words of God that Eve disobeyed God’s one and only command, and in so doing introduced sin to the human race.  Adam and Eve were banished from their garden paradise, and were told that they would toil and struggle for survival as a result of their rebellion.

But God did not leave them naked and hopeless.  He provided the first substitutionary sacrifice, providing the first cover for the human race in the form of skins to wear.  And God provided a promise that the God would one day rescue the human race from their predicament of alienation from God.  In Genesis 3:15 – often referred to as the “protoevangelium” or “first Gospel” – God promised Eve that one day one of  her descendants would crush the head of the serpent Satan.  God promised to provide an antidote for the terrible state that sin has introduced into the world. He would do so through the seed of a human woman.

Much of the rest of the historical books of the Old Testament predict and trace the line of this “Seed of a woman,” this promised Deliverer, by means of what scholars call “the toledoth formula” (”These are the generations of”).  The account of sacred Scripture traces the line of the Deliverer from Adam (and Eve) to Noah.  It tells us of Noah’s sons Shem (Genesis 9:26), Ham, and Japeth, and then directs us to the line of Shem (Genesis 11:10-32).  In the same way, we continue to learn that the Deliverer, or the Christ, would come through the line of Terah, and then through Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3, 7), and then Isaac (Genesis 17:15-19), and then Jacob (Genesis 26:1-5), and then Judah (Genesis 49:8-12).   The promise of the Deliverer narrows.

The day would come when Jesus said to the descendants of Abraham, reflecting over the meaning of God’s promises to him, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day” (John 8:56).  And, given the fact that God told Abraham that all the families of the world would be blessed through his seed.

We can understand why the Jews longed for the day that the Deliverer would come.  Told to pronounce a curse upon Israel, Balaam instead received a divine prophecy promising blessing and the coming of a great Deliverer who would come as a “star” out of Jacob, and bear a scepter which He would use to crush the nations that opposed them (Numbers 24:15-19).

We find that One would come who would reveal the very words of God and teach the people in the power and authority of Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-18).  And the Jews believed that this great prophet who was to come would be the Christ, the anointed one of God.  And since He would be a prophet “like Moses,” this coming Prophet would be a Deliverer just as Moses had been (Exodus 6:1-8).

It should therefore be no wonder that Philip found Nathaniel and announced to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote” (John 1:45); that the Samaritan woman whose life appeared as an open book to Jesus concluded that He must be a prophet and the Christ (John 4:19;29); that the crowds exclaimed after the feeding of the 5,000, “Surely this is the Prophet!” (John 6:14).

The Apostle Peter certainly understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy in his sermon (Acts 3:11-26) in which he quoted Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19 as properly pointing to Jesus as the Prophet who was to come and who had now come. And Stephen in his martyr’s speech made the same connection between Jesus and the prophet predicted by Moses (Acts 7:37).

We can turn to the writings of Job – the most ancient book in the Bible – and see more about why the Jews so longed for this incredible Christ. Borne from out of a deep pathos and torment of soul, Job longed for some type of relief and vindication from God. He called for one who would be a divine go-between, a mediator, a witness in heaven, who would act as his kinsman-redeemer and interpreter who could explain the enigmas of existence and deliver him from his pit of despair. As we read passages such as Job’s call for a divine mediator (Job 9:33); his faith in a witness in heaven (16:19-21); his faith in a Redeemer who would stand victorious on the earth at the last (19:23-27); his faith in one who stands out even among angels who would mediate with God on his behalf.  The figure he envisioned would clearly be none other than the Christ of God!

This coming Deliverer would be a great and powerful priest-king through whom God would one day judge the ends of the earth and rule the world (1 Samuel 2:10; Psalm 2:1-6; Psalm 110:1-4).  When King David thought to build a house for God, God told David that he would instead build a house for him, a house and a throne that – through his descendant – would endure forever (2 Samuel 7).

Imagine how David must have felt!  The hope of the entire human race had been placed upon his lineage!  All the ancient prophecies that David had grown up with and counted upon as his foundation for his own hope of salvation and for the future of his nation were now being repeated to HIM and placed upon HIS offspring – forever and with NO strings attached! David was so overwhelmed by what was happening that he prayed his own version of what would one day be echoed by his descendant Mary (2 Samuel 7:18-29 cf. Luke 1:46-55).

And thus we see the line of thought developed by Scripture: we move from the “seed of the woman” who will be victorious over Satan, to the “seed of Abraham” who will be a blessing to all the earth, to the “seed of David” who will have a rule that will never end.

We learn so many things about the coming Christ.  We learn that He would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), and that the government of the world would rest upon the shoulders of this child who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  We find that this child – “whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” – and who would be ruler of Israel would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).  So many prophecies came to find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

And how would this King of kings and Lord of lords, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days, come into the world?

If I were God, I would come to the world in a demonstration of awesome majesty.  I would come as a glorious giant, floating down from the sky as an awestruck people looked up at me in dread.  But that wasn’t the attitude of Christ.

The Apostle Paul summed up the attitude of God as found in Christ when – describing both the majesty and humility of God – he wrote in Philippians 2:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also in the interest of others.  Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus came in as lowly and humble a manner as one could come, born in a stable with a teenage girl and a common laborer looking down at Him.  The Creator of the universe, the maker of all matter, and energy, and space, and time, had chosen to restrict the expression of His divine attributes and take on a human nature.  And to come into the world as a helpless newborn human baby, struggling to keep His eyes open while He lay in a wooden box that was used to feed animals.

Why would God the Son do such a thing?  He became fully human in order to save humanity.  As a human man, He could fully identify with mankind.  Just as by man sin came into the world, by a man the dilemma of sin would be resolved.  As a human man, Christ could resist temptation even as He lived a morally perfect life.  God can not be tempted.  So the Son added to Himself a human nature by which He could experience every temptation common to man.  As a human man, He could be our model, our paradigm of virtue and humility and love and righteousness and grace and peace.  Christ experienced the same temptations, the same human frailties, the same weaknesses, as all of us; and He yet triumphed by relying upon the same Holy Spirit that is available to every believer.  And as a human being, Christ could pay the penalty for the sins of the world – a penalty that had been due to mankind since that terrible day in the Garden – and restore the soul harmony and the divine fellowship that God intended for man.

Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 (see also Zechariah 12:10) are among the most powerful passages in Scripture describing the mission of the virgin-born Immanuel, “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14), whose name would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).  He was to die a death on behalf of many, and it would be by His stripes that human beings could be healed (Isaiah 53:5).  He would die on our behalf, but God would not let His holy One see decay (Psalm 16:10); He would rise again.  As a human, He could die in our place so we could live; as God, death and hell could not hold Him.

God intended man to have shalom in the full sense of the word: not just absence of conflict, and not merely peace, but wholeness, harmony, well-being, joy, love, restoration, and abundance.  And He so He sent His Son into the world to secure true shalom for mankind.

The Apostle Paul wrote that the coming of Christ had been part of God’s divine plan for the human race from the very foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:1-12).  The writer of Hebrews tells us that the entire Old Covenant sacrificial system looked ahead to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.(Hebrews 9:11-15).  And so Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).

This is more than just a bunch of dusty old prophecies and religious doctrines, and more than just a claim a bunch of sectarian Christians claim for their religion and their religious leader.  Christianity – the gift of Christ secured by His Incarnation – has been a blessing to the entire human race.

Take one of a myriad of examples.  In Neo-Hindu Views of Christianity, we find that:

In the cross of Christ, Gandhi found the supreme example of satyagraha: Christ was the ‘Prince of satyagrahis’.  “It was the New Testament”, wrote Gandhi [on page 92 of his autobiography], which really awakened me to the value of passive resistance.  When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages such as, ‘Resist not him that is evil: he who smiteth thee on thy right cheek turn to him the other also, and love your enemies, pray for them that persecute you, that ye may be the sons of your Father which is in heaven’, I was overjoyed.”

The idea of passive resistance and its accompanying non-violent movement, by which Gandhi was able to lead India to its peaceful independence and give it the impetus to become a democracy, could not be found in the doctrines of Hinduism, but only from the sublime teachings and example of Jesus Christ.  And it was through the Christian British intolerance of sati that the practice of wives throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre was outlawed, just as it was through the Christian message that the tragic status of the ‘untouchables’ was eased within the Hindu caste system.

Our founding fathers, for their part, well understood the essential role of the Christian religion to the success of their democratic experiment:

“We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and true religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
– John Adams

“…And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion…reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
– George Washington, Farewell Address, Sept 17, 1796

“Religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness.”
– Samuel Adams, Letter to John Trumbull, October 16, 1778

“The great pillars of all government and of social life [are] virtue, morality, and religion. This is the armor…and this alone, that renders us invincible.”
– Patrick Henry, Letter to Archibald Blair, January 8, 1789

“Without morals, a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion…are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.”
– Charles Carroll (signer of the Constitution), Letter to James McHenry,November 4, 1800

“Religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man towards God.”
– Life of Gouverneur Morris, Vol III

“Let divines and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age, by impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls, of inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity…in short of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system.“
– Samuel Adams, Letter to John Adams, October 4, 1790

“In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government. That is, the universal
education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by the means of the Bible.”
– Benjamin Rush, “A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a School Book”, 1798

“In my view, the Christian Religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed…no truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian Religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”
– Noah Webster, Reply to David McClure, Oct. 25, 1836

“Information to those who would remove (or move) to America”: “To this may be truly added, that serious Religion under its various Denominations, is not only tolerated, but respected and practised. Atheism is unknown there, Infidelity rare & secret, so that Persons may live to a great Age in that Country without having their Piety shock’d by meeting with either an Atheist or an Infidel. And the Divine Being seems to have manifested his Approbation of the mutual Forbearance and Kindness with which the different Sects treat each other, by the remarkable Prosperity with which he has been pleased to favour the whole Country.”
– Ben Franklin, 1787 pamphlet to Europeans

“Independent of its connection with human destiny hereafter, the fate of republican government is indissolubly bound up with the fate of the Christian religion, and a people who reject its holy faith will find themselves the slaves of their own evil passions and of arbitrary power.”
– Lewis Cass, A Brigadier-General in the War of 1812, Governor of the Michigan Territory, a Secretary of War, a Senator, a Secretary of State.  The State of Michigan placed his statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

“I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.”
– Thomas Jefferson

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens…”
– George Washington, Farewell Address, Sept 17, 1796

“Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”
– John Adams, Letter of June 21, 1776

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? That they are not to violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” – “Yes, we did produce a near perfect Republic. But will they keep it, or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction.”

We discover there is a profound bond between the worldview founded by Christ and the American experiment of democracy, as revealed in the early charters and compacts that provided the Christian religious foundation for our government.  And even those who have been so profoundly denied the freedoms of democracy, such as the great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and those imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain under communist totalitarianism, understood that Christianity and the ethics that flow from it provided hope in a world split apart.

Human history points to no other moment so much as the moment that Jesus Christ was born in that dusty stable more than 2000 years ago.  Because of the birth, the life, the teaching, and the work of Christ to die in our place so that we might have forgiveness of sins and enjoy fellowship with a holy god, countless human lives have been radically transformed.  And human civilization itself has been transformed – even in lands that have never fully embraced the Christian Gospel.

We therefore thank God for sending the Son into the world.  And just as “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,” on Christmas we celebrate the other-centered sacrificial love of God in Christ by trying to practice the same for our fellow precious human beings who are all around us.

Merry Christmas!

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