(This article was published first on December, 2017 edition of the Light of Life)
It was told that in the December of 1903 the Wright brothers successfully flew their flying machine and telegraphed their sister Katherine about the great news. They sent the message, “We have actually flown 120 feet and will be home for Christmas.” She happily took the telegraph to the local newspaper editor and showed him. He looked at the message and said, “Good! The boys will be back for Christmas.” This is the way many celebrate Christmas today. They can’t see the forest for the trees. Too many minor details of Christmas celebrations drown the real significance of the greatest event in the human history.
Christmas means many things to many people. It mainly brings celebrations and the festivities to mind. Many do not even ponder about the significance of the event behind Christmas apart from the skits and stories they hear and see during the season. It is just a holiday to rest and have fun with family. To the religious it is the birthday of Jesus Christ. But the true meaning of Christmas is much deeper. The event of Jesus’ birth still affects our lives. If it is so effective, we need to ponder deeply about its meaning. Though many things could be said about the birth of Jesus, we would see only about the two names given to him in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. These names reveal the profound meaning embedded in Christmas. Matthew narrates the visions Joseph and Mary had regarding the child which would be born to them in the first chapter of his gospel. This portion also contains the two names – one given by the Angel to Joseph and the other name was in the prophecy of Isaiah – which would belong to that baby. These names describe his mission and what his life would mean to this world.
Angel tells Joseph that “She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1: 22). The name ‘Jesus’ is the Greek form of the Hebrew proper name ‘Joshua’ which means ‘Yahweh is Salvation’. We all know the Joshua of Old Testament who brought people of Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses (Joshua 1: 3). He demonstrated in his life that God of Israel is powerful enough to bring salvation to the people who were mere slaves at Egypt. From the time of this Joshua to the New Testament so much has happened. Because of disobedience, the people of Israel were exiled and ruled by different empires. In New Testament times people were living under the Roman rule. They were living in the Promised Land but without political freedom. Many people were expecting a Messiah – the Anointed One of God who would be like Moses to usher freedom from all the oppression.
In this context, the Angel was asking Joseph to name the child as “God [Yahweh] is Salvation.” But he added a qualification to it by saying that the child would save God’s people from sins. Why God should save them from sin when the pressing need was political freedom? Here lies the crux of Christmas. Though Israel needed freedom from political oppression, the primary problem was that of the SIN. If they were to experience freedom from this sin, they would be really and ultimately free. Christmas points to this ultimate need of man – freedom from sin.
The modern man is in need of so many things. The list will be endless. As we satisfy one need another need arises. But the name ‘Jesus’ points out that we basically need only one thing and that is the freedom from sin. We need this Jesus to redeem us from our sin. If man’s life is freed from sin, he can live a content life. This is the meaning of Christmas.
Secondly Matthew quotes a prophecy from the book of Isaiah “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”) (Matt 1: 23; cf Isa 7: 14). Jesus birth brought a new era into the human history where human beings would know God better. Through this event of Jesus’ birth, God was revealed to the human beings. Old Testament talks about God as God whom we cannot see. People heard God’s message through God’s servants such as prophets and priests. Though the phenomenon of God talking directly to human beings was there, it was rare and confined to specific people. When Moses was pleading with God to show him God’s glory, God did not allow him to see the full glory (Exodus 33: 23). When the saints of the Old Testament met the angel of the lord, they invariably thought that they would die (Gen 32: 30; Judges 6: 22; 13: 22 etc). They could not bear the presence of God (Eze 1: 28; 2: 1). God was considered as completely OTHER whose holiness would not allow him to mingle with sinful and fallen human beings. There was an unbridgeable gulf between the creator and the created human beings.
But in Jesus Christ this gulf was bridged. By his birth, Jesus brought God’s presence to be with the human beings. Emmanuel was significant to the first century Jews because it demonstrated that holy God could humble himself to be with them in their suffering and in their lowliness. God participated in the sufferings of the world affected by the sin and disobedience. Through the birth of Jesus, God showed that he is not the creator who abandoned his creation but a compassionate creator who even after the fall took the first step to redeem it. Thus ‘God with us’ through Jesus gives the suffering humanity, a hope and confidence. Incarnation was an expression of God’s love.
It is not only the love of God but also God revealed himself to us. He was not a mysterious God whom we cannot know, but a personal God who would like to connect with us personally. He is a God who came to us instead of us searching for him. That is why John writes, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1: 18). The significance of our knowledge of God is that by knowing our creator we can know ourselves better. Only by knowing the intentions of the creator in making us, we can know our purpose in this life. It gives great joy to us to know that God who has created us has made himself known through Jesus Christ. The proclamation that God is with us in midst of any situation is the meaning of Christmas.
Unto us the child is born:
So the meaning of Christmas is clear but what it has to do with me? Is it like a child born in our neighbours house, where we can go, visit and come back to do our chores? Or is it a child born in our house which affects everything in the household – from sleeping time to normal routine of everybody in the house? Isaiah says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isa 9: 6). This child is born for us. If we realise that and accept it, this child should radically change our lives. Our lives would not be the same again. We would be freed from our sins to lead a freer life because he is Jesus and we would be experiencing God’s presence because he is Emmanuel. If these things happen, this Christmas would be a meaningful Christmas.