More than 2000 years ago, a child was born in a manger in Bethlehem. What that means for us is something we’ve discussed ever since.
For Christians, the explanation starts as a birthday. We can explain it to children and join them in singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. People of all faiths, or none, can say it marks the birth of the founder of an important world religion.
But all of those explanations fall short when you examine Christian claims about the meaning of the day. In the third century, Christianity changed, almost overnight, from a highly persecuted religion to the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Christian leaders were called together to explain the beliefs of the faith.
The first question was: Who is Jesus? They had been willing to die for their faith and many had been maimed. They were trying to put into words the faith which was so important to them. In answering the first question, they found themselves using words they could not fully explain or understand.
Mathematicians use the terms “Infinity” and “Imaginary numbers.” They mean something but are hard to explain. The church leaders were trying to explain something more amazing than Mathematics: God. They also used words which made sense but are hard to explain.
They said the baby, Jesus, was “fully God and fully man.” That means the birth we celebrate at Christmas is the appearance of God into our existence as a human being. If we believe this, it changes the way we view God, the universe and humanity.
The Christian leaders, being versed in Jewish Scriptures, believed that God created the universe. It was not just a collection of material that somehow led to the creation of life.
But even then, how do we understand God if God comes into our universe as one of us? He came not as a triumphant ruler, but as a helpless baby. What kind of God would do this?
First it rules out a childish God who made a toy he could play with and discard. Such a God might look for reasons to stomp on his creatures. We would have to try to follow all the rules and hope he didn’t see us.
It also rules out a more adult but detached God. Some see God as a watch-maker who created the universe and lets it proceed on its own. He might come back some day and decide whether to keep it or wipe it out and start over. But this God is somewhat disinterested. Human beings are only amusing as an experiment.
Even our greatest minds find this somewhat satisfying. Albert Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”
This is a reasonable understanding of God, but, amazingly, God is unreasonable, or beyond our reason. The appearance of God in our universe is beyond our comprehension. We have seen artists who paint themselves as one of the crowd, but that doesn’t come close.
A member of the Divine Trinity came to Earth as one of us. He did not do it as an experiment or to “lord it” over us. He came because we needed it. But what did we need?
Many emphasize the idea that God became human to “pay a debt He did not owe and a debt we could not pay.” This is the view of Jesus as a sacrifice for us. I am not trying to refute this, but it is still incomplete. If it were simply this, he could have come as an adult, gone to the cross and been resurrected.
Others emphasize His time as a teacher and deemphasize the cross. In the early church there were debates about whether God could actually suffer. Again, the church leaders refuted this and affirmed that, as “fully God and fully man,” he did experience the full burden of crucifixion.
In the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe we are seeing a life as God would have us live it. In the Gospel stories, we see someone who spreads healing and love, who is patient and understanding and is constantly seeking the “lost sheep”.
The self-important see no need for Him and He does not force Himself on them. He always offers and never imposes. He honors our freedom.
I believe He had to build a lifetime of examples of how to treat people so we could begin to understand what He was trying to tell us.
The message of the baby on Christmas morning is easy to say as it is hard to believe: The God who created the universe and everything and everyone in it came to Earth because we needed it. This is a God whose love for humanity is so deep that He will do whatever will fully meet our needs and provide what is, in the long run, best for us.
More importantly, this is the same God who continues to watch over us and care for us every moment of our lives.
We, in turn, are offered the chance to understand the magnitude of the gift and the depth of that love and try, out of gratitude – not duty – to show others some of that love.
May the Blessings of the Child of Bethlehem and the God who created and loves us all be on all of you!
Have a Blessed Christmas!