The Christmas season in our modern era brings with it so many conflicting messages that people can be forgiven for finding it difficult to push through to what Christians historically have been celebrating these many centuries. We hear much about ‘happy holidays’ and the ‘Christmas sales’ in our cathedral malls so that for many the remarkable nature of the Christmas message gets rather lost behind the glitter. Some in our culture are also shouting ‘away with the manger,’ and so fail to pass on to the next generation the significance of Christmas and hence confusion abounds. Some years ago I read a magazine article on Christmas in which the journalist’s young daughter asked her mother “if Santa isn’t Jesus’ uncle, what relation is he and why does he come to his birthday party?”
We have preserved the celebration and gift-giving of the Christmas season, yet amidst the food, drink and exchange of gifts, there is often a deep, though quiet, anxiety about life. There is private grief about the past as people reflect on loss or disappointment and failure, as well as fears about the future. Increasingly many people feel spiritually lost and uprooted. Moreover, amidst all the noise of the season, Christmas punctuates the conclusion of another year, which often appropriately leads to reflection upon life, its meaning and significance. This can be a blessing which gets us beyond the noise and glitter to those things that matter most; the questions that Christmas raises about the origin, meaning and destiny of our lives.
A good place to start in contemplating the implications of the Christmas message for life is about 700 years before Jesus Christ was born, when the prophet Isaiah uttered these remarkable words which are at the heart of the Christian gospel:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulders. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6).
Our culture sometimes still hears these enduring words read or sung at this time of year because prophecy is one of the astonishing factors preceding the life of the person we call Jesus – this fact alone makes him utterly unique.
There are dozens of distinct and specific prophecies about the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, written hundreds of years before he was born, indicating things like the place and manner of his birth, and the type and manner of his death. In fact there are 109 distinct prophecies that the messiah was to fulfill. Jesus’ life fulfilled them all. The probability, mathematicians tell us, of one person fulfilling just 20 of these 109 prophecies by chance is less than one in one quadrillion, one hundred and twenty five trillion.
This prophecy from Isaiah is just one of many, but it holds the key to understanding the meaning of this season: “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” There would be nothing specifically unique about a child being born, but there is something special about this Son who is given, who is called Mighty God and Prince of Peace.
Given this astonishing real-world factor, when we think of the birth of Christ we must immediately dispense with notions that we are dealing with a story like that of Star Wars, one set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In other words, when we think about Christmas one of the errors we tend to fall into is imagining that the story of the Nativity belongs to the category of fantasy.
When one reads the accounts in Matthew and Luke of the birth of Jesus, we find that they were written as history, not fantasy. Luke gives a very specific time reference involving emperors and governments; he is claiming to write about a historical event that actually happened. In Matthew contemporary history intrudes with the very real and frightening Herod the Great. The same is true of Jesus’ death. The greatest of the ancient Roman historians from the first century, Cornelius Tacitus, who lived through the reign of half a dozen Roman emperors, and who was not a Christian, writes of the reign of Nero in the first century and how he tried to avert suspicion falling on himself by falsely blaming the Christians for the fire of Rome. He writes:
To supress the rumour, he [Nero] falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.
Tacitus here is referring to the death of Christ and he agrees with the gospel writers that it was during the time of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. In other words, we are not in the realm of myth or folklore, of Cinderella and Santa Claus, but of real life and history. And yet at the same time we are, most remarkably, not talking about a revered emperor, military leader, statesman, revolutionary or philosopher, like Plato, or Julius Caesar, Fidel Castro, Buddha, or Mohammed.
Rather we are speaking of someone born in poverty, who founded no school and held no illustrious position. He had no army or geographical empire, was born in a borrowed stable and was buried in another man’s tomb; a man who never travelled more than 200 miles from his own town. He was persecuted and later executed as though he were a criminal. So clearly the message of Christmas is not concerned with a great human conqueror or even a human feat and accomplishment; it is instead about the gift of God. As another prophecy of Isaiah foretold, “therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call his name Emmanuel (meaning God with us)” (Matt. 1:23, cf. Isa. 7:14).
Christmas, then, is about the birth of a child, but this birth is unique because the child is unique. The message of the Christmas cradle is a unity and its significance encompasses the full meaning of the Bible’s total message about human life. If this cradle were not special then this season would surely be one of vain sentimentality and false hope. In fact the Christian faith would be a farce. We cannot take simply sentimental hope from the birth of a baby. If that child in the manger is not who he claimed to be when he entered his public ministry, the Son of God and savior, the Christian faith says our situation remains hopeless (1 Cor. 15:19).
With all the problems that surround our lives and this world with all its strife and hatred and conflict and suffering, we need more than just another ordinary cradle. We have all had a cradle and we will all have a grave, but our cradle was not foretold by prophets, or realised through a virgin, nor did people come from distant lands to worship at our cradle.
The poet William Blake saw clearly the ordinary reality of our arrival in this world:
My mother groand,
My father wept
Into the dangerous world I leapt
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud
Struggling in my fathers hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast
Certainly Jesus came into the world as a real human child. But Christmas says the occupant of this cradle was unique. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, speaking in Nazi Germany, in a Christmas address of 1940 before he was thrown into prison by the Nazis, tried to put the significance of this child into words:
This is about the birth of a child, not of the astonishing work of a strong man, not of the bold discovery of a wise man, not of the pious work of a saint. It really is beyond all understanding: the birth of a child shall bring about great change, shall bring to all mankind salvation and deliverance. What kings and statesmen, philosophers and artists, religious leaders and moral teachers have labored for in vain is now brought about by a new born child. Here a child born into the midst of world history, has put to shame the wisdom and efforts of the strong. A child born of a human mother, a Son given by God. That is the secret of the salvation of the world. All the past and all the future is here encompassed. The unending comfort of the Almighty God comes to us, humbly and in the form of a child his Son…. That this human child, God’s Son, belongs to me, that I know him, have him, that I am his and he is mine, means that now my life depends only on him. A child has our life in his hands.
This is the heart of the Christmas message, a child is born yes, but a Son is given! God has given us of himself.
If you have ever wondered why Christians sing carols like “Hark! the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king,” it is because this newborn was unique. The gospel teaches the One God who eternally lives and reigns as Father, Son and Holy Spirit has sent his Son into the world, born of a virgin, to save us from our sins and the guilt and shame that comes with them and to restore us to intimate relationship with our God.
He saves us by taking our humanity upon himself at his birth and then bearing all our pain and grief, sin and despair by his death at the cross, before being raised in power and glory. In short, at Christmas we realise that we need much more than another cradle (a child is born), and another grave. We will all have both of those. We need the cradle (a Son is given) and the empty grave of Jesus Christ to truly know a living hope. The apostolic council in its letter to the early Hebrew churches wrote:
Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. Now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb. 1:1-3).
The foundation of all truth, the beginning of all explanations, is made flesh and enters our world in the manger. It is this reality that can change everything for us, and gives a unity of meaning and purpose to our lives. Christ shines his light and life into all our darkness and promises to cleanse and to make us new.
His cradle alone has defeated the grave because it is more than just another cradle; his grave is more than just another grave because the child is the Son of the living God. The Christmas cradle can transform our cradle by giving us new life, and his defeated grave transforms our graves as death is swallowed up by his resurrection life. Christmas therefore poses a question we all must answer for ourselves: is it not the case that we need a savior? One poet put it this way:
If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator
If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a savior.
We don’t need to settle for a sentimental holiday this Christmas. We don’t have to be spectators to the truth, we can participate in it. We need not settle for a cradle and a grave, but embrace the cradle of the child and the life of the Son. In the words of St. Augustine:
Christmas is the day on which the creator of the universe came into this world. This is the day on which the one who is always present through his power became present in the flesh. He came in the flesh with the intention of curing human blindness so that once we were healed we might be enlightened in the Lord.
 William Blake, “Infant Sorrow,” Poetry Foundation, accessed December 9 2016, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45951.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, translated and edited by Edwin Robertson (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005), 150.