Few years ago, I remember sharing, during our musical rehearsal for Christmas, something that I have noticed missing in our Christmas vocabularies. What is common between angels, manger, stable, a donkey, a baby wrapped in a cloth, ox, shepherds, the Maggi? You guessed it, the nativity scene. The harmony between Christmas and the nativity scene goes without saying. The bible of course do indeed presents a nativity scene of some sort, even though some of the details are attributed to creative license and church traditions (such as Francis of Assisi in the 1200’s) than Scripture. Yet the basic thrust of the biblical story is there. The baby Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem.
But something is missing in the popular depiction of the story of Christmas. Scripture presents this reality of Christmas in astonishingly diverse ways and multifaceted vocabularies. The nativity scene is simply one of the many biblical depictions of the reality of what we call Christmas.
Thus, as we celebrate this Christmas, I would commend us to expand our vocabularies which could make this season all the more meaningful. Let us rehearse seven vocabularies.
A baby is born in the city of David
(Mt 1:21, 25; 2:2; Lk 1:31; 2:6, 7, 11)
The birth narrative is the common way to talk about the reality of Christmas. Jesus was born a baby. This terminology underscores the fact that He truly was a human being in every sense of the word: with full range of emotions and human experience. But he was without sin. That is to say, he was not thinking to himself ‘stop it you guys with all this baby talk! I know every word you think!’ Nope. He truly was such a vulnerable baby that Joseph was instructed to keep him safe in Egypt (exile and return from Egypt), fleeing from the brutal king Herod. He was born as David’s great grandson who inherits the throne and as heir of Abraham’s promises. He was given a human name Jesus and the Davidic title Christ. Yahweh fulfilled his promises and kept his word that he gave to both Abraham and David (Luke 1:54-55, 68-69, 72-73, et.al.)
The Word Became Flesh
The gospel of John does not have a birth narrative! We don’t see a baby Jesus. The story is told rather from an entirely another perspective- in contrast to the other gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. John is singing Tenor! He starts with a pretty high note. This way of retelling the story of Christmas, and of Christ in general, from above-down as it were is so typical of John (as oppose to below-up that is typical of the other evangelists: Mathew-Luke). The Person who was referred as the Logos preexisted prior to creation. This Logos, John says, was with the one who was said to be divine (God) and the Logos himself was also divine (God). John then tells the story of Christmas with the idea of ‘becoming’. The Word became a human being. He didn’t merely appear to be human. No, the Logos took a fully human nature (flesh) and became a human being.
This too is the story of Christmas, though is told from a heavenly perspective– from the dimension of preexistence. John think of it that is best told from the vantage point of becoming than natural begetting (gennaō)! The God-Man, the en-fleshed Logos, was simultaneously fully God and fully man. The two natures are unified in the Logos. One Johannine scholar puts it beautifully as follow: “In Exodus Moses hears the divine name spoken by God himself, and this is followed by God’s word written on two stone tablets. Now, John tells us, God’s Word, his Self-expression, has become flesh” To put simply, in the past Yahweh gave His word on tablets of stone. In Christmas, Yahweh gave His Word made flesh! Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews uses another expression to convey the same idea “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14-15). This too is the power of Christmas.
The Word Tabernacled
By means of the Word-made-flesh, Yahweh dwelt among His covenant people. When we think of this word, Tabernacle, we are reminded of the Exodus narrative when Moses pitched a tent outside of the camp so that Yahweh establishes a footing among his covenant people. In scripture “tabernacle”, “temple”, “tent”, etc.… represent mediation: a meeting place between God and sinful human beings. The Christmas story is the story of how Yahweh descended to dwell among his new covenant people through the Word-made-flesh and by means of the Holy Spirit. Jesus (the truly-human, born in Bethlehem, and preexisted as the divine Logos) is the ultimate meeting place. We meet God in Jesus.
He emptied himself
What a beautiful picture of Christmas! Like John, Paul presents us a new vocabulary (whether one takes this hymn to be original with Paul or not is besides the point!) This Jesus, prior to his incarnation, was in the very form of God! In the past, many had committed grievous error assuming that this emptying was a subtraction of divinity! Paul rather said Jesus emptied himself precisely “by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” Jesus emptied himself not by subtraction but by addition. Adding to himself a truly-human existence and be found in the form of a slave was in and of itself an act of emptying. He had unfathomed glory which he did not consider a thing to be grasped for his selfish end.
This is also another way to describe the reality of Christmas, yet entirely from another perspective: namely from the perspective of appearance. It conveys a toggle between seen/unseen. He appeared, disappeared and yet is to appear (1Tim. 6:14; 2Thes. 2:8; 2 Tim. 4:1, 8; Titus 2:13). There is a tension between Christmas, his first appearance and His return, the second appearance. There is no other best way to capture this realty except to depict Christmas as a toggle between: appearance/re-appearance. He appeared and yet he is to re-appear. That is to say as we celebrate His birth, we ought to also look up to heaven for His return!
He came from above/ descended from heaven,
The other word that nuances and enriches our Christmas vocabulary is a word that denotes dimension of space and time: he came or He descended. The importance of these words is in what they presuppose. The word coming or descending presuppose prior-existence. Jesus was preexisting (before time) in heavenly dimension (space). This expresses the otherness of Jesus. He came from another dimension, from the dimension of God to testify for the Truth. We are celebrating the testimony of the most holy one of God, who truly been there and heard from his Father. In this sense, Jesus is not congruent with humanity. He is the holy one of God to whom demons began to tremble knowing who he truly was!
He Was Sent
Not only Jesus came and born of a virgin but he came with a mission. He was sent for a purpose.
First, this term connects Christmas with Easter. It shows us the congruity of the incarnation and that of crucifixion. His incarnation is to the order of the crucifixion.
His glory in incarnation is best in concert with the weakness of the cross and the glory there in.
Second, this terminology also shows us that the Son was sent by the Father indicating His dependence upon and love for His Father. He did not come on his own. He was sent and He was sent for a mission!
All hail to Thee, Immanuel,
We cast our crowns before Thee;
Let ev’ry heart obey Thy will,
And every voice adore Thee.
In praise to Thee, our Savior King,
The vibrant chords of Heaven ring,
And echo back the mighty strain:
All hail! all hail! All hail all hail! Immanuel!
(A hymn written by D. R. Van Sickle)
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