The day after Christmas is an appropriate time to consider how the birth of Christ is often assigned a secondary place in Christian theology.
The birth of Jesus, or Christmas, as it is known today, has been considered – especially by some preachers and teachers of Christianity – as less important than the resurrection of Jesus, also known as Easter. The motivations are two-fold. First, we do not know the exact day of birth of Jesus. Second, according to these leaders, it is the resurrection that gives Christianity its essence and meaning. Without resurrection there is no salvation – that is, forgiveness of sins, grace and a renewed and eternal life.
It is a mistake, in my opinion, to classify God’s economy of salvation in terms of the importance of its events or phases. The entirety of God’s plan is important. To say that Jesus’ death and resurrection is more important than Jesus’ birth reveals our failure to understand that the three major events in God’s plan for humanity – the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus – are equally important.
“It is a mistake, in my opinion, to classify God’s economy of salvation in terms of the importance of its events or phases.”
The birth of Jesus is not less important than the rest of his mission; it is foundational to his mission. God could have chosen to save humanity in a different way, without a death and a resurrection. God is sovereign, so who are we to exclude that possibility? However, God chose the plan which is revealed to us in the Bible, and no part in this plan is less important than the rest.
Jesus birth has a unique theological and practical meaning for each of us:
● First, by choosing to enter human history, God’s Son chose, for our sake, to become one of us.
● Second, God chose to be born on earth to us and for us. Jesus is God’s good news, God’s special grace of salvation to us and for our salvation.
● Third, the birth of Jesus teaches us that his way is the humble way, that he identifies with the less popular and applauded people of society, that we should seek him with a humble heart and that we should relate to others for their sake – not forgetting that God was born for our sake, to us and for us – and altruistically.
By choosing to enter human history, Jesus sacralizes history and gives it an entirely new purpose and dimension. History becomes a sacred history to those who see it though God’s perspective; it is not just a series of random, meaningless events. People are transformed by God and understand history with a new perspective and vision, which is both temporal (related to this world) and heavenly (related to the eternal world). There are meaningless events in history, of course, but they are not a part of sacred history. Sacred history is only that which is seen and lived through God’s will and vision: love, justice, peace and unity. People live the sacred history inasmuch as they relate themselves and the world to God. The rest is an ambiguous state, an amalgam of sacred and profane.
Moreover, Jesus entered human history, to be one of us and for our sake, to restore the relationship between humanity and God that Adam and Eve had lost through disobedience. At Christmas we are reminded that God, in the person of God’s Son, restores the original relationship between humankind and God for our sake. It is the beginning of a new creation and a new world. God becomes one of us. God not only experiences what it means to be human – to be hungry, to suffer, to love, to want – but also teaches us the way of God, the way of love, justice, peace and unity. Moreover, as one of us, God meets us in our troubles and darkest days, reminding us not to despair; there is still hope and light.
Jesus was born to us and for us. Jesus was born into a time of terrible oppression and suffering for the Jews who had been under the domination of the Roman Empire. In addition, their religious identity had been threatened by the religious syncretism of the Roman Empire. In the middle of such a tragic reality, the angel brought good news of great joy, which was Jesus, the Savior, the long-awaited and prophesied Messiah.
As was true 2,000 years ago, the birth of Jesus brings today the good news of the gift of the Savior. But this salvation does not mean a sudden social and political change, a complete state of joy here on earth for us, as most of Jesus’ contemporaries had expected. Instead, he asks us all to repent, to change, to love one another and to live like brothers and sisters in unity as the true way to approximate God’s Kingdom on earth. By following Jesus’ teachings of love, justice, peace and unity, we can achieve both temporal and eternal happiness and salvation (rather than erroneously expecting to achieve these through our own self-centered initiatives and power). Such a way of life allows us to speak authentically of God-with-us.
Those who want to find Jesus must humble themselves. Before we find Jesus in a manger, we are told that an angel brought the good news to shepherds – a poor and widely despised class of people – rather than to the aristocrats and leaders of that time. While important in social, political and economic standing, the wealthy and powerful were (and still are) reluctant to accept the good news (and the change it implies) brought to them by a person socially inferior to them. In contrast, poor people are often eager to listen and open to change.
“We cannot know the risen Christ without knowing the humble man of Nazareth.”
Second, we find Jesus in a humble manger, not in a socially respectable place. We find him here because “there was no place for them in the inn.” The young couple and their soon-to-be-born child did not “deserve” a room in the inn because they had arrived later than others and/or were considered less significant than others. But, there is always more space. The fact that there was “no place” for them in respectable society was a matter of the world’s choice, not of an objective reality.
The truth is that we most often find and receive Jesus among shepherds, among poor and ordinary people, because others are too busy to pay attention to him and his message. We find him in humble places, because only those who humble themselves are open to receive Jesus, the displaced child. We can receive Jesus only in humility, by walking with society’s displaced and marginalized, by washing the feet of those who are our sisters and brothers and by loving each other altruistically.
We speak of knowing the risen Christ, but we cannot know the risen Christ without knowing the humble man of Nazareth. The risen Christ, who is spiritual and beyond our power of understanding, must be approached with a deep humility and awe, not with the confidence of our reason and intelligence. History has shown us that human reason fails to understand Jesus fully. Jesus can be known only in the humility of heart, thought and deeds.
The birth of Christ is the first and most important lesson of humility, because God was born in utter simplicity to us, for us and for our sake.