If you were to ask most Americans about the meaning of Christmas, you would get a variety of answers. A lot of people would tell you that Christmas is about spending time with family, some may speak of getting time off work, others will talk about giving (or getting) presents, and many will tell you that it’s another excuse for retailers to make a buck. Many people view Christmas as a magical time when we should be more giving, focus on caring for our fellow man and thinking beyond ourselves. There are a few who view Christmas as an unwelcome intrusion of Christian values into their lives, and still others view it as simply a “winter holiday”.
As you watch TV shows and talk to your friends at this time of year, you’ll find that people view Christmas in all sorts of different ways—but most of them miss the point. The real meaning of Christmas has to do with God the Son coming to the earth and becoming a man. It’s true that we also spend time with family, give gifts, and usually get time off work, but these things are not at the heart of Christmas. The heart of Christmas is the birth of Jesus, the God-man, and what His arrival means for us. If we miss this fact, we miss Christmas.
In Luke chapter 2, we read the story of Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph. The entire account of Jesus’ birth spans only a few verses, but when we stop and think about just what was happening, we find that there is great significance in the birth of this child.
Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for a census, because that was Joseph’s home town. We don’t know exactly what time of year this occurred (it may or may not have been around December 25th), but we do know that they had to make a trip of about 80-90 miles. That doesn’t sound like a long way to us but Mary and Joseph were basically walking. Don’t forget too, that Mary was probably 9 months pregnant! This had to have been a slow and exhausting journey. We also know from the parallel account of this story in Matthew 1 that Joseph and Mary were now married but that the marriage had not been consummated.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, they found there was no room for them to stay at the local inn. There is debate on what exactly this inn was like and why there was no room for them, but this much is clear, they did not have a comfortable place to stay the night. One of the most common views is that the inn was booked solid because of all the travelers coming to be registered. Think of it kind of like trying to get a hotel room when there is a big convention in town. During the course of that night, we find that Mary gave birth to her firstborn child, a son named Jesus. Since they weren’t able to stay at the inn, they had no place to lay their newborn son, and so we read that they wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger. Wrapping a child tightly in cloths was a common practice at that time and it remains a common practice in some areas of the Middle East even today. It is a way of protecting the child and keeping it warm—additionally it was believed that keeping the baby’s arms straight would encourage them to grow properly. While wrapping a child in cloths was not unusual, laying a newborn in a manger was not common practice. A manger was typically a feeding trough for animals. It may have even been something as simple as a space hollowed out of the wall where food for the animals could be placed. This is the reason that we assume Mary and Joseph spent the night in a stable—because the only place they could put Jesus was in a feeding trough.
In Luke’s gospel, this is basically all the information we get about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. It seems almost like it was no big deal, like nobody cared—and in fact, that is probably correct. No one but Mary and Joseph really knew what was going on out in this stable. It wasn’t until angels came and announced the birth to some shepherds who were in the fields nearby that anyone even took notice of the fact that Jesus had been born. The angels announced to the shepherd precisely who this baby was, and why they should take note.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12, NIV)
When the shepherds heard this, they went to Bethlehem, found Mary and Joseph and Jesus and went to honor him. Then they went and told the story to everyone else.
This story is one that is probably familiar to most of you (though we often confuse the pictures on greeting cards or the stories of Christmas pageants with what is actually contained in the Gospel accounts), but it is possible to know all the details of the story and still miss Christmas. The question that we must really ask is, “What’s the big deal? Why does it matter that this baby was born all those years ago?”
The reason it matters is that this wasn’t an ordinary baby. The angels told the shepherds that “…a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” During advent, we have already looked at the fact that Jesus’ conception was unique (it was a virgin conception) and that Mary was told that Jesus would be the Son of the Most High, an everlasting King. What do these things teach us about Jesus? They teach us that Jesus was the Son of God in human form.
Jesus was God and he was also a man. He did not give up being God when he came to earth, and at the same time, he became fully human. In theological terms, this is called the Incarnation. The word “incarnation” literally means to become flesh. Jesus had existed for all of eternity, before the world had even been created, but he existed as a spirit. He did not have a physical body like we do. In the incarnation, Jesus became a human being just like we are.
This is different from other instances in the Bible where we see members of the spiritual realm coming to earth. Numerous times in the Old Testament we saw angels appear to men. They appeared in the form of human beings, sometimes in a way that the person didn’t immediately recognize them as angels. This is not what happened with Jesus. The angels did not become human; they merely appeared as human beings. They only looked human. Jesus literally became a human being. At his birth, we witness the miracle of the incarnation. Jesus, who had existed for all of eternity as an unlimited, spiritual being, humbled himself to become like us—to become a mortal man.
It would be easy for us to gloss over this act. After all, we are human beings, so how tough can it really be? The problem is that we have only been human beings. We have never been God. Listen to how Max Lucado describes what Jesus experienced in the incarnation.
…when God entered time and became a man, he who was boundless became bound. Imprisoned in flesh. Restricted by weary-prone muscles and eyelids. For more than three decades, his once limitless reach would be limited to the stretch of an arm, his speed checked to the pace of human feet.
Jesus allowed himself to be limited by taking on human nature. He was still fully God, but he also became a man. He restricted his power to be the same as that of a human being. We can never fully understand what Jesus gave up to come to earth as a humble servant, we can only begin to imagine.
The significance of this fact is that Jesus experienced the same things we do, yet he never sinned. Jesus’ dual nature—the fact that He was fully man and fully God—meant that as a sinless man, he alone could pay the sin-debt that we had earned. He had no debt of His own, so He was able die in our place to pay ours. It also meant that as God, his sacrifice was of infinite value. It is because of the miracle of the incarnation that Jesus was able to become a sacrifice for sinful human beings. This doctrine is central to the message of the gospel. At Christmas, we are reminded of the fact that Jesus was born as a human being so that he could die as a human being.
But that is not the only significance of the incarnation. In the book of Hebrews we read these words,
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15, NIV)
Kent Hughes draws on the analogy of two pianos. When two pianos are perfectly tuned to one another they will resonate in sympathy. What that means is that if you play a note on one piano, the same note on the other piano will also vibrate. If you play many notes, the same notes will vibrate on the other piano. He continues,
Christ’s instrument, his humanity, was like ours in every way, except that he had no sin. And when a chord is struck in the weakness of our human instrument, it resonates in his! There is no note of human experience that does not play in Christ’s as well…. He has an unequaled capacity for sympathy. It goes far beyond intellectual understanding. Jesus does not just imagine how his children feel—he feels it!
We are all sometimes under incredible pressure. We may feel that no one understands, much less cares. But the truth is, any note we play (whether a melody or a dirge, or a minor key, or a discordant note) has sympathetic resonance in the heart of Jesus Christ. This is a supreme glory of the Incarnation.
Jesus not only died on our behalf, but he continues to stand with us as we live our lives. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that whatever situation we face, we can come to Jesus for help and guidance and understanding. Because Jesus was fully human, he is able to resonate with every human experience. Because he was fully God, he has the power able to help us through those experiences.
Practically speaking, Jesus’ incarnation means at least three things.
First, it means that there is forgiveness available to anyone who would believe in Him. Jesus was born in order that he could die. The tiny hands whose tiny fingers Mary probably counted right after Jesus was born were destined to have nails driven through them. The child who was loved by his parents was destined to be hated by the world. The child who was born sinless was destined to take on the sins of all who would trust in him.
When we realize what Jesus gave up to come to earth, we must recognize the wonder of what happened at Christmas. Jesus humbled himself in order that you and I might be exalted. The question we must each ask is, have we taken advantage of the work He has done on our behalf? Has there ever been a time where you have committed your life to Christ? Have you ever prayed a simple prayer, something like, “Lord, I recognize that I can never be good enough. I am a sinner, and I don’t deserve to be loved by you at all—but I recognize that Jesus came to earth to love even someone like me. Please forgive me.” If you haven’t, then there really isn’t anything for you to celebrate at Christmas. I challenge you to change that today. It’s not the words of the prayer that make the difference, it’s the heart with which you pray.
Second, if we truly understand the incarnation and what Jesus has done for us, we should be willing to follow His example. Sadly, at Christmastime Christians seem just like everyone else. At this time of year, we often see the worst in humanity come out. We get so focused on the material things of this world that we fail to notice the people around us. Maybe instead of focusing on accumulating presents, we should focus on giving of ourselves.
- Volunteer for a shift ringing a bell for the Salvation Army, or serving some other Christian organization
- Visit someone in a nursing home, or spend some time with someone who will be facing their first Christmas without someone they love (whether it’s because of a death, divorce, a move, or a deployment)
- Take some time to make sure that your kids understand the true meaning of Christmas as opposed to knowing that Santa brings them presents or the names of Santa’s reindeer
- Go out of your way to be friendly when you are Christmas shopping (to stressed-out cashiers, to other customers who are out of time and money, and to the people in the parking lot who are looking for a space or are loading a car full of gifts)
When we understand the humility Christ showed, we should be willing to do the same.
The third thing that we learn from the incarnation is that Jesus is available to help us in every situation. Like the two pianos tuned to the same pitch, Jesus resonates with our experience. I suspect that most of us recognize this fact in our heads. We at least know theoretically that Jesus understands what we are going through and is able to help us as we struggle with the difficulties of life, but I suspect that many of us have difficulty actually living like we believe that.
I was recently reading an article on prayer by a preacher named E.M. Bounds, and he said something that startled me. He said that if we fail to pray and ask for God’s help in every situation, it is because we fail to believe that God is able or willing to help us in our situations—for if we truly believed that God was standing by ready to help, we would certainly run to Him at every opportunity. Bounds reminds us that we don’t seek God’s help in prayer because we either don’t believe He really understands our situation and what we need, or we don’t believe He is able to help.
It is important that we know the facts of the incarnation, but even more important is that we believe the facts of the incarnation. If we really believe that Jesus understands every situation we face and that He is willing and able to help, we should find ourselves constantly running into His arms. For some of you Christmas is not a joyous time. Some of you are facing Christmas with an empty plate at the table for the first time this year; some of you may feel even more isolated than usual at Christmas time. Let me encourage you to remember the true meaning of Christmas—that Jesus understands your pain, and He is standing by, ready to offer His strength to you.
The question we must ask is: are we missing the point of Christmas? Supposed you had a foreign exchange student living in your house. Imagine that this student came from a country that had no knowledge of Christmas. If this student participated in your Christmas celebrations—the parties, the music you listen to, and your celebrations with family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—what impression would they get of the holiday? When they returned to their country, what would they tell their families about this American tradition? Would they know about Jesus? Would they even know that it was a religious holiday?
I find it interesting that if we were to pick out who is the villain in our normal understanding of the Christmas story, it would be the innkeeper. Of course, the Bible doesn’t tell us that there was an innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away, but it only tells us that there was no room at the inn. The innkeeper (or the other guests at this particular inn) always gets a bad wrap. These were not bad people, but they missed Christmas too. Why? I think they missed Christmas because they got too busy with other things to realize that God was in their midst.
We face the same danger today. For most of us, Christmas is the busiest time of the entire year, and it’s difficult to make time to worship when we’re constantly running and exhausted at the end of the day. We need to work to keep ourselves from missing Christmas the same way the innkeeper and his guests did.
Christmas isn’t primarily about family get-togethers, gift-giving, or time off of work or school. Christmas is about a baby born more than 2,000 years ago that was unlike any other baby born since. This child was the Son of God. He was both fully human and fully divine. He came to the earth so that He could enter into our experience, so that He could resonate with us, and ultimately, so that He could give his life as a payment for our sin. If we celebrate something other than this fact we don’t celebrate Christmas at all, we’ve actually missed the point completely.