- The Incarnation
- Jesus the Christ
- Jesus’ Birth According to John
- Creeds and Councils
- The Festival of Jesus’ Birth
Christians view Jesus of Nazareth as the founder of their faith. He spent his adult life as a spiritual teacher and healer who moved from place to place, teaching people about God. In one Bible passage Jesus describes himself as “anointed” by God to “preach good news to the poor ... proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” and “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). Christian scripture also describes Jesus as the Son of God whose sacrificial death renewed humanity’s relationship with God and conferred the forgiveness of sins.
The Easter festival commemorates the life, death, and resurrection of the adult Jesus. The Christmas festival, by contrast, celebrates his coming into the world. Theologians call this event the Incarnation, a word that literally means “to be made flesh.”
“Incarnation” refers to the idea that Jesus was both human and divine, and that in him God came to earth in human form. The joy and hope inspired by this event has found a multitude of expressions in the world’s Christmas celebrations.
In the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel According to Luke, the accounts given of Jesus’ birth state that his mother, Mary, conceived Jesus by the power of God’s Holy Spirit while still a virgin. Thus Jesus was both human and divine, an idea also expressed in two of his biblical titles, “Son of God” and “Son of Man.”
Commentators have remarked that the stories of Jesus’ birth reveal something of the nature of the Christian God. The stories show that God is not distant and unmoved by human suffering, but rather cares about particular people in particular places and so enters into the world to effect good. Indeed, Mary is directed by the ANGEL Gabriel to name her son Jesus, which means “God saves” or “God heals.” Christian scripture expresses Jesus’ care for his followers by describing him as a shepherd.
In recent years, some theologians have begun to question traditional views of the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth. They point out that “son of God” was a title that the ancient Hebrews gave to people who played a special role in bringing God’s help to humanity. The title did not imply divine identity but rather service rendered to God. These thinkers suggest that the Christian notion of a divine Son of God came about after Jesus’ death, as people struggled to understand the nature of Jesus’ spiritual authority and to define his identity. The Virgin Birth has similarly been questioned. Some theologians today accord it greater symbolic than literal significance, suggesting that the story of the Virgin Birth was invented to symbolize Jesus’ divine origins to a first-century audience. Others interpret Mary’s virginity as a symbolic representation of her spiritual wholeness.
JESUS THE CHRIST
Jesus’ followers also gave him the title “Christ,” which comes from the Greek word for “anointed.” Among the ancient Jews high religious leaders underwent a ceremony in which they were anointed with oil. Jesus’ followers viewed him as the one chosen and anointed by heaven to reconcile humanity with God and so came to call him Jesus Christ.
JESUS’ BIRTH ACCORDING TO JOHN
Although most people refer to the accounts of Jesus’ birth given in Matthew and Luke as the Bible’s two Infancy Narratives, the Gospel according to John offers another, more philosophical account of Jesus’ coming into the world. It, too, emphasizes Jesus’ divine nature and explains that God came into the world through Jesus that humans might come to know God. In this poetical passage Jesus’ divine essence is referred to as “the Word” and as “light”:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life
was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father [John 1:1-14].
CREEDS AND COUNCILS
John’s passage concerning Jesus’ birth raises theological issues not addressed in the other two Gospel accounts. Several hundred years after the birth of Jesus, theologians were still debating the exact nature of Jesus’ identity and the mechanics of how he came into being and into the world. Christian leaders decided that they needed to settle these debates once and for all. So they held councils in which they hammered out a general consensus on these matters, creating in the process various creeds and doctrines of the church. Especially important were the Nicene Creed, formulated at the Council of Nicea in 325, and the doctrines that came out of the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
THE FESTIVAL OF JESUS’ BIRTH
The holiday devoted to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, which we call Christmas, dates back to the year 336. It was set for December 25, an already important date in the ancient world. Centuries later, Christians would become concerned with establishing the year of Jesus’ birth, which had not been recorded in scripture or other early Christian writings (see Year of Birth Jesus).
The debate over when Jesus was born continues to this day, as does discussion concerning the appropriate way in which to celebrate Jesus’birth. Five hundred years ago, the Puritans objected to celebrations that revolved around eating, drinking, masquerading, and GAME playing. More recently some Americans have begun to question the degree of commercialism that has invaded the festival. Some feel, like the Puritans of old, that contemporary American Christmas celebrations have become so divorced from the story of Jesus’ birth that the holiday is more a secular than a religious one. Many are searching for ways to link the spiritual teachings contained in the story of Jesus’ birth to their own Christmas celebrations. Indeed many devotional books advise Christians of various denominations on how to prepare their own heart and spirit to receive the Christ Child (see also Advent). Some who do not identify themselves as Christians are looking for ways to celebrate the holiday’s secular themes and its universal spiritual themes, while disregarding specific Christian doctrines. These themes include generosity and gift giving, the celebration of birth and new life, the joys of winter, and the return of the sun (see also winter solstice).