To be very honest, I've never really cared about Christmas. Everyone else always seems so excited about it -- if you're from Singapore, like me, you'll know that around November, the lamp posts in town are draped with slightly gaudy Christmas lights, safely secular Santa figurines and banners that advertise a dozen Christmas sales. Since my family doesn't celebrate Christmas (be it the religious or capitalist bits of it), it's never been particularly special to me. Maybe I look on with mild envy while my friends get gifts, or spend the day watching Love Actually – nothing truly monumental. After coming to Cambridge (but before I became Christian), the hype surrounding Christmas felt even more incomprehensible as winter approached. I was especially resentful upon hearing the incessant refrain that 'it's the most wonderful time of the year'. The proclamation seemed to ring very hollow, in light of the shortening, gloomy days and the bitter, Cambridge winds. This year, however, I've felt prompted to meditate on the significance of this day to me, and to other Christians. So often, the true power of Christmas is drowned out by the materialism that governs this time of year. Instead of focussing on the materialistic aspects of Christmas, it might be useful for us to think about what it meant for God to send His Son, and what it still means for us today.
My sense is that we don't spend enough time really thinking about the circumstances of Jesus's birth. Of the Gospels, only Matthew and Luke give details surrounding Jesus's actual birth. In the very first chapter of the New Testament, Matthew calls us to recognise the great significance of Jesus coming in the flesh. We are told that Joseph is visited by an angel, who tells him of Jesus's miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit. This makes Jesus Joseph's son by Law, linking him to the line of David, but it also makes him God's son, the Saviour of the world. In order to show how Jesus is the fulfilment the Old Testament prophecies, Matthew references Isaiah 7:14, that 'the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.' This brings us to the first significant thing about Jesus coming to Earth – that He is the culmination of all the Old Testament prophecies that came before Him. He did not come to existence when He was born in the manger; rather, He was there from the beginning, and the entire Old Testament points toward how His birth will mark God's Kingdom being established on Earth.
While Matthew focuses more on the lineage of Jesus and the Lord's angel speaking to Joseph, he does not go into great detail surrounding Jesus's actual birth. Luke, however, delves into the very dire circumstances surrounding His birth. Most of us would know this context by heart, be it from reading the Bible or seeing it enacted in Nativity plays. Yet, I hope we can spend some time imagining the circumstances in which God sent His Son. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary had to go from Nazareth into Bethlehem, to be registered for a census that was being conducted. The distance between the two cities was around ninety miles, which roughly translates into a three-day trip. Three days of walking, for a pregnant woman who is about to go into labour. After they reach Bethlehem, Luke tells us that Jesus was born, 'wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn'. Consider how dire these circumstances are for giving birth to a child. Even today, childbirth is painful and can be dangerous. In Biblical times, it was far worse due to the lack of sterile conditions. Infants were usually born into a home where conditions were less than sanitary. Dirty water had to be used to cleanse the infant and mother, and they had to use dirty bandages to wrap the infant. To make things worse, God ordains it such that Joseph and Mary were turned away from the public inn. Mary had to give birth outside, and lay the child in a manger, which is a feeding trough for animals. Imagine how anticlimactic that might have seemed to Mary – Gabriel tells her that she is bearing the Son of God, but instead of sending fanfare or immense luxury, she has to give birth in the open, exhausted and dirty after three days of travel.
Yet, Luke tells us in the passage preceding this that God uses these circumstances for His glory. The shepherds are visited by an angel, and are told that the Saviour is born. 'And this will be the sign to you: you will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.' The angel uses the manger as a marker of Jesus's location, such that the shepherds can find Him and look upon Him. It was not just a random detail or an oversight on God's part – it was part of His plan, just as sending Jesus was part of the greater plan. Think about how Mary, Joseph or the shepherds must have felt, cradling the baby Jesus in their arms. He was fragile, as any other baby would be, but He also contained infinite power, wisdom, love and mercy. When we think about the sacrifices that God made for us, we rightly think of the Cross. But it's also important to remember that God sending His Son at all was a miracle unto itself. He could have come in His infinite glory, but He chose to be born small and weak, in the arms of those He came to save.
Given all that's been said about Jesus's birth, what does that mean for us today? Philippians 2:6 – 7 says that Jesus, 'being found in human form, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross'. John Piper describes this as 'summarising manger to crucifixion in one verse', showing how the significance of His birth also points toward the significance of His death. Even as we celebrate Jesus's birth, we should also remember what it means -- it points to the Cross, as well as to the time that He will return and fully establish His kingdom on Earth.
So wherever you're spending this Christmas, be it back home or in Cambridge, I encourage all of us not to let Christmas lose its power. The message of incarnation is too great, too momentous, to be lost beneath tinsel and bauble. In the midst of endlessly useless Secret Santa gifts and excessive Christmas lights, let us remember that the birth of Christ is the culmination of the Word that was from the beginning, and looks forward to the hope that is to come. Such that this festive season, we can say with the angels, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among those with whom He is pleased!'