At the end of every year, a covert censorship obscures the true meaning of the event that split history in two: the birth of Jesus. Under the festive guise of Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ has been culturally transformed into a holiday of good cheer. The religious motif has been preserved, but the spiritual meaning has largely been lost.

The lack of belief in the authenticity of the birth of Christ is illustrated by a dialogue from a 1980s television series called “Thirtysomething.” Hope, a Christian woman, is arguing with her Jewish husband, Michael, about the authenticity of the celebrations. “Why do you even bother with Hanukkah?” she tells him. “Do you really believe a handful of Jews held off a huge army by using a bunch of lamps that miraculously wouldn’t run out of oil?” Michael retorts, “Oh, and Christmas makes more sense? Do you really believe an angel appeared to some teenage girl who then got pregnant without ever having had sex and travelled on horseback to Bethlehem where she spent the night in a barn and had a baby who turned out to be the Saviour of the world?”

Allusions to the imaginary nature of the Bethlehem event can provoke immediate and passionate reactions from the Christian world. Theologians are ready to break out of their technical unemployment and fill pages in order to eradicate the unbiblical offence. Under the feverish pen of Christian writers, the stable becomes more appealing, the Child appears more authentic, the star shines brighter, the shepherds are idyllic and the Three Wise Men from the Far East seem to radiate more mystery and generosity.

Holidays are our culminating memories; they call us to reconsider the meaning of life. The birth of the Saviour, say theologians, defines man’s spiritual identity through the imperative need to allow the divine Child to dwell in the human heart. The result is the restoration of the image of God in the hearts of the people, the purpose for which Jesus came into our world, blending the sinful nature of man with His holy nature. Although this heavenly desideratum is solemnly recognised every year at the end of December, Christians, for the most part, reap a great spiritual emptiness by being inadequate to the Child Jesus. It is a paradox that needs to be deciphered.

An imprisoned birth

In the Saint Joseph Oratory in Montréal, there is a stand dedicated to the Nativity. There are dozens of representations of different sizes, made of different materials, with different interpretations, and in a captivating artistic manner. It is a unique and impressive work of art. Artistically and declaratively, Christianity wants to convince every year that it opens the door of the stable in Bethlehem with reverence to welcome the coming of the Christ Child into the world and His mission to bring “peace to those on whom His favour rests.” Although the Christian world sets aside a special time to pause for the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, Christians have less and less time for their spiritual needs and the needs of others. In spite of creative efforts dedicated to the Son who came from heaven with good news, God’s creation—humanity—is becoming more and more damaged and distant from the original every day.

The spiritual message of Christmas is that just as Jesus was born in a stable, so too must He be born in the hearts of people. Yet in reality, according to Scripture, the heart “is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). Even more, the heart “gave birth to wind” (see Isaiah 26:18). The cause of spiritual failure is celebrating for the sake of celebrating. In every Christian church, there are moments of reflection in which some things are acknowledged: that the veneration of the Child Jesus is becoming more and more formal; that the time set aside for the celebration is primarily devoted to the people themselves; that the religious creations on the subject are merely expressions of human affirmation; and that the declaration of the intention to be transformed by the indwelling of Jesus in the heart is a mere affirmation of good intentions without power. Centering on Jesus and contemplating Him is replaced by centering on feasting for one’s own pleasure. In people’s hearts we hear heavy latches being pulled and trapping the Baby in the manger.

The essential theology of the birth of Jesus

Mary, the mother of Jesus, learned through revelation that she would give birth to a son, Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” The shepherds near Bethlehem heard directly from heavenly messengers that a Saviour, Christ, was born. At His baptism, and later at His transfiguration, the heavenly Father affirmed the divinity of His Son in the presence of several human witnesses. The priests and Pharisees, on the other hand, accused Jesus of claiming to be the Son of the heavenly Father and of making Himself equal to Him.

The Son of God willingly gave up the privileges of His divine status and chose to submit to the Father, adopting the humble attitude of an ordinary mortal. Jesus renounced His attributes which cannot be transferred to human beings: omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. He embraced dependence and humility in order to come to the aid of human beings. He served them and gave them the opportunity to live a righteous life as He had lived.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-7) describes the full greatness of self renunciation: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” The testimony of Jesus’s attitude challenges the individual to entrust the direction of his or her life entirely to God. Humanity’s declaration that it can make it on its own in an area that is otherwise not its own—the transformation of life—is the main theme of human failure.

The incarnation of the Son of God is the basis of human renewal. This is a difficult fact for people to accept, because accepting the entry of the Child Jesus into the human space destroyed by sin means accepting a complete physical, spiritual, and intellectual restoration. It means the reinvestment of God’s life in human life, the incarnation of His character in the human soul, which implies the renunciation of the rebellious refusal to cooperate with Jesus. The birth of Jesus is not just a visit; Jesus is not just a guest who will leave after a while. He has come to stay and transform reality in its depths.

God could easily be criticised for choosing some ordinary shepherds to whom He revealed the entry of His Son into the unfriendly environment of earthlings. The astonishing spectacle on the hills of Bethlehem was witnessed by such a small and modest audience. In a sense, humanity has been deprived of the most artistic description and the most inspiring essay by the absence of cultured people who could have witnessed the amazing spectacle on the hills of Bethlehem. No composer captured the angelic arpeggios and no painter savoured the unique light of that evening’s outpouring. The only witnesses were a few shepherds, unable to translate what they saw into verse or other creative acts. God sacrificed the professionalism of the artistic narrative of self-absorbed creators for the humble presence of the shepherds, unworthy of evocative performances but dignified by their faith in the Messiah who was to be seen by their very eyes.

The shame surrounding the circumstances of the birth was another component that created outrage and outcry in the world of “moral” people. Christian writer Philip Yancey notes: “Nine months of awkward explanations, the lingering scent of scandal—it seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for His entrance… Mary’s pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Ghost would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger.”[1]

What is appalling is the vulnerability of the Godhead, who submits to the will of mortals to do with God as they please: from slander and insult to persecution and murder. Amazingly, Jesus continues to show His vulnerability today: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). This apparent disadvantage will be the yardstick by which we will be judged at the Last Judgment, by what we have or have not done to Jesus.

Perhaps the most acute and tense feature of the Saviour’s birth is human rebellion and defiance. The Christmas cards, the gentle carols, the beautiful decorations, the gifts and the festive greetings are all ravaged by a bitter struggle, a great struggle, to remove the Saviour from human hearts. Behind all this festive spectacle, “Revelation 12 pulls back the curtain to give us a Christmas as it must have looked from somewhere far beyond Andromeda: Christmas from the angels’ viewpoint.”[2] In the last book of the Bible, we find the image of a huge dragon crouching ravenously at the feet of a holy woman, waiting to devour her child as soon as it is born. At the last moment, as in a movie of paroxysmal suspense, the newborn is carried to safety, the woman flees into the wilderness, and then a universe-spanning war begins. And all this is triggered by a supernatural birth, in a stable, in a historically and geographically insignificant place.

Any earthling, with his or her history and soul characteristics, may seem insignificant in the midst of the most terrible conflict—that between God and His enemy. But for each of these insignificant ones there is hope. The one who will cry out the need of his soul will bring about the birth of the Saviour in his heart, however dark the night of unbelief may be.

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[1]“Philip Yancey, ‘The Jesus I Never Knew,’ Zondervan, p. 32.”
[2]“Ibid, p. 43.”

“Philip Yancey, ‘The Jesus I Never Knew,’ Zondervan, p. 32.”
“Ibid, p. 43.”