The heart of Christmas

Christmas. I am often reminded by some Christians that “we are never commanded to celebrate the birth of Jesus,” “Christmas has nothing to do with salvation,” or “Christmas is paganism and from Constantine.” These brothers or sisters are often well meaning though misinformed doctrinally and historically. (On the perpetual myth that Christmas has pagan origins see the outstanding essay, linked here, by Professor of History, William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas,” in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity)

Christmas is a season in the Christian year rather than a single day like December 25.  So today I want to share with you why Christmas is in fact essential to biblical faith.

Christmas is not essential because of the name “Christmas.” Christmas is not essential because of poor shepherds or wise men of any number. Christmas is not essential because of a star shinning in the night. Christmas is not even essential because of the virgin birth (though I believe in the VB).

So why is “Christmas” essential to biblical faith?

The first page of the New Testament tells us why Christmas, the birth of Jesus, is essential to biblical faith. Matthew writes, quoting Isaiah 7.14 from the Septuagint,

“… they shall name him Emmanuel.

Then Matthew explains the meaning of “Emmanuel” with this commentary, “which means ‘God with us.

“God with Us!” This is the Gospel of Matthew’s doctrine of Incarnation. People normally go to John 1 when thinking of Incarnation (and for some reason do not think Jn 1 is Christmas) but Incarnation, God dwelling with Us, is an important theme throughout the New Testament and is in fact how the New Testament ends.

“God with Us” is one of the most prominent promises of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible opens with humanity living with God in the Garden. Human Sin vandalized relationships in multiple dimensions: 

with God,
with fellow humans,
with ourselves, 
with the rest of creation itself.

The biblical narrative begins with the creation of space where deity and created matter could be together.  So Genesis 2 is Emmanuel … God living with humans in the Garden with all creation. When all humanity rebelled in Adam against the Creator we were driven from the Presence of God, from living with God.

The rest of the Story of the biblical narrative is the Creator God’s rescue mission of humanity, and the resulting trauma to creation, from our self-inflicted Exile from the divine Presence.

Biblically, salvation is not merely a matter of forgiving our sin/s. Forgiving sins is a necessary means to an end. Restoration of fellowship, communion, God living with us is the goal of salvation.

Thus the Exodus, the paradigmatic pattern of salvation in the Bible, does not end with the Israelites going through the Red Sea out of Egypt by the power and grace of Yahweh. Rather Exodus ends with the building of the Tabernacle so that God will dwell among God’s people. So we read these remarkable words,

I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you. You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new. I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am Yahweh your God brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and make you stand tall” (Lev 26.9-13)

The goal of salvation was “God with Us.” God dwelling with the people. The language of “I will walk among you” explicitly evokes the Garden where God walked with humanity. Thus the Goal of Exodus is not realized in the crossing of the Red Sea but in God living with us, Emmanuel. 

Thus the goal of the new Exodus, that is the death, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus, is not simply forgiveness of sins. Matthew just told us his name will be Jesus/Joshua because he will save his people from their sins (Mt 1.21). Matthew uses the Isaiah quote to explains what that means for the world – sin drove us out of the dwelling presence of God. The removal of that sin restores us from Exile from the Presence … thus God with Us!

Over and over and over throughout the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh promises Israel “I am with you.” The most burning hunger in the hearts of the pilgrim was to,

dwell in the Presence of the Lord.
One day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”
I’d rather be a door keeper in the house of the Lord …
Do not fear for I am with you.”

These all express the desire for “Emmanuel.”

The Tabernacle/Temple was quite literally the place where God chose  to dwell with God’s people. The whole purpose of creation was for the creatures to enjoy glorious Presence of the Creator.

Matthew’s Gospel, on the first page of the New Testament, taps into Israel deepest yearning in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. That God has in fact so loved us, that God now lives with and among us. This is why in the middle of the Gospel, Matthew says where two or three are gathered in my “name,” that “I am WITH YOU.” And the Gospel closes with “I will be WITH YOU till the end of the age.” Emmanuel.

John’s Gospel connects the Incarnation explicitly with God’s dwelling in the Tabernacle/Temple. The Word “dwelled among us.” That is the word “Tabernacled” among us drawing directly from Exodus and Sirach 24. Emmanuel.  

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High …
Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel to receive your inheritance

(Sirach 24.3 & 8)

The goal of salvation was not and is not getting rid of sin. That is a huge and necessary step, and praises to the Lord of Lords for that. But the goal of salvation is what Christmas is actually about …

God dwelling with us.

That is the goal. Thus the biblical narrative does not end with the cross nor even the resurrection. The biblical narrative ends with God moving – like in Exodus – to live with us. 

The Revelation of John says “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven … See the home of God is among humans. He will dwell with them

This is the Christmas message. The birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of the Word, is essential to biblical faith not only for the means of removing sin. It is essential because it is the Goal of Salvation, which is astonishing fulfillment of the wildest hopes and dreams of Israel … that the Creator God now lives with us.

Emmanuel. It is not a name that was ever on Jesus’s birth certificate. Emmanuel is Matthew’s way of telling us that the birth of Jesus is the ultimate Christmas gift, because now we have restored in a radical manner what was lost in the Garden. God loves us so much that God would dwell with humanity.

Emmanuel begins the Bible. Emmanuel is the theme throughout the Bible. Emmanuel on the first page of the NT. Emmanuel is the last page of the Bible.

Merry Christmas.