My favorite types of films are the kind that open up with a scene from the middle of the plot. It begins and you see a lot of action going on. You don’t really know what’s going. It starts in the midst of all of the chaos and madness and you’re left wondering what it all means. Then, as the movie continues to play, you finally realize that you actually caught a glimpse of a later section of the movie. You begin to see the context and backstory of that one opening scene until it eventually returns to it. Then you see it in context and go on to experience the thrilling climax and, finally, the conclusion. However, at the beginning of the movie, you landed right at the middle of the overarching story that was about to unfold.
That’s what it’s like when you look at the birth of Jesus.
When families gather around Christmas time to read Luke 2 or Matthew 1, which contain the story of Jesus’ birth, they’re simply opening up right in the middle of the grand, overarching narrative that is contained in the whole of the Bible. There’s an entire backstory before it and a climax and conclusion after it. The question that’s on everyone’s mind around the holiday season is, what is the actual meaning of Christmas? What should we make of this intense scene of Jesus’ birth directly in the middle of God’s big story contained in the Bible?
Too often, it’s simply taken as a detached tale that’s just told as a children’s story the night before the kids get to indulge themselves in a consumeristic pleasure land. It would be like playing that movie I described earlier and then rolling the credits after the opening scene. I know I’d want my money back. The absolute most important thing when trying to understand the meaning of Christmas is understanding it in the context of the overarching redemptive narrative of Israel’s God.
In summary, God had created a good world and had ordained humanity (man and woman) to bear his image, exercise his dominion, and fill the earth. Consequently, humankind failed to do so and God’s good world was marred by sin, falling short of God’s perfect glory. In order to restore what was lost in humanity’s fall, he called a man, Abraham, to be the father of a family who would be a blessing to all the families of the world (Genesis 12:1-3). God made a promise, a covenant, with him to make this come to pass, no matter what. Abraham’s family eventually turned into a great people, called Israel. God rescued Israel and called them his people. After doing so, he commissioned them to have the same roles as Adam and Eve (Exodus 19:5-6). They were meant to be the means of restoring the world. However, while Israel prospered at times, they ultimately failed in their vocation to restore what was lost in the Fall.
So, if God is faithful to his promises (and he is), what is Israel’s God going to do with a disobedient people who is in just as much need of rescuing as the rest of the world they were originally called to rescue? How can he remain faithful to his end of the covenant with a people who is either unwilling or unable to stay faithful to their end?
It’s at this moment of the narrative that we return to the scene that we began with, now, however, in its proper context. In a time period where people are asking these same questions comes a baby boy. However, this isn’t just any baby boy. This is the baby boy. After Israel’s failures, prophets began to rise up, prophesying of a time where an anointed king would come to redeem and rescue Israel (Psalm 2). They started to tell of someone who would stand in for Israel, as its representative (Isaiah 53:4-6). They began to speak of God returning and dwelling with his people (Zechariah 2:10-11).
Little did they know that all of these promises would come true in this baby boy.
Jesus was not only going to be the king of Israel, but the king of the world, the King of kings. Jesus was not just an Israelite, but he was Israel embodied, standing in for them. Jesus was not only fully man, standing in for all humankind, but he was also fully God, acting with his authority. He would be the one to truly reflect God’s image and exercise God’s authority, as God originally called Adam and Eve. Eventually, he would establish a kingdom and followers who would then be commissioned to fill the whole earth.
This is the meaning of Christmas. It’s understanding the impact of this one scene after finally seeing it in its full context. Yes, the climax will come, but that’s what Easter is for. Yes, the conclusion will come, but that’s why we eagerly anticipate his coming. Christmas is about understanding Jesus’ birth as the revelation of God’s answer to the entire backstory as told in the Old Testament.
We can’t simply think of it as a cute story to recite in December. It’s so much more than that. The birth of Jesus means that God is faithful to his promises. It means that he loves his creation enough to rescue us. It means that he loves humanity enough to empty himself and step into human flesh. It means that he loves the world enough to bear the sin of us all.
When we celebrate this season, we celebrate a God who is Love. When we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we celebrate a God who has loved us all along. And he decisively began to demonstrate this love and set it in motion through a bouncing baby boy on Christmas day.
(This post was featured on “The Poor In Spirit” blog, and won a contest!)