Judging by the length of the season and the visibility of the signs and celebrations, one would think that Christmas was the center of the Christian faith or even the essence of the faith. Yet there is no Christian sacrament that refers back to the virginal conception and birth of Jesus. Baptism re-presents the death and burial of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist makes present the body and blood of the Lord. Paul does not use the special manner of the Jesus’ birth to make a theological point; nor do John, Peter, James, or the writer of Hebrews. The sermons in Acts never mention it. The New Testament focuses overwhelmingly on the death and resurrection of Christ as the saving events. Even Matthew and Luke place the central emphasis on Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. So, as we celebrate Christmas—if you do—we would do well to remember this:
The birth of Jesus would be of no more significance than the birth of any other human being had not God validated his claims and reversed the court’s verdict of blasphemy and sedition by raising him from the dead. We probably would never have heard of him. And if we had heard of him, he would be just one more Jewish prophet martyred for preaching against injustice, one more apocalyptic fanatic deluded into thinking God would come to his rescue if he acted with enough faith. Indeed we gentiles would probably never have heard of the Jews or the Hebrew Bible; for the Jews became a world historical people only because of Jesus’ resurrection, and the Old Testament is the Old Testament because of the existence of the New Testament. And the New Testament exists because Jesus was raised.
Apart from the resurrection, the miracle of the virgin birth loses its significance as a sign of the incarnation of God. Isaac’s birth was a miracle and so were those of other prophets. And Isaac did not become the savior of the world. Islam teaches the virginal conception of the “prophet” Jesus but denies that Jesus is the incarnation of God. Ironically, Islam, which denies that Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, can teach that Jesus was born of a virgin only because Jesus was raised from the dead. Otherwise the story would never have been told in Arabia.
At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into the world, but we must remember that that Advent was hidden and ambiguous, as was the true meaning of the life and death of Jesus, until the resurrection. We know that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the union of God and man, very God and very man only because, contrary to all expectations, God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead. If God had not raised him from the dead, he would not be the Son of God or the Savior of the world, even if he had been born of the Virgin Mary. And we would not be celebrating Christmas.
If Christ had not be raised, this Christmas would be just another winter solstice, and we would be would be celebrating the birth of the New Year rather than the birth of the Savior.
Heretic! :). I love it. Great post! I hope your trip is going well!
But surely Christmas has some theological purchase power via the doctrine of the Incarnation? I’m thinking here of the Philippians hymn. So the virgin birth is really more of a footnote in the wider significance of “The Word became flesh.” But I guess I am just nitpicking now.
I find it interesting that Christmas has fallen on hard times lately–not just because of political correctness, but also for other reasons. It is generally acknowledged that December 25 has no association with the likely date of Jesus’ birth, but was just appropriated for the occasion. I have also seem a resurgence of criticism concerning the virgin birth in recent years as well–the claim that Matthew misunderstands and misappropriates the Hebrew “alma” to entail virgin when it only means “young woman” has been surfacing more frequently as of late. Certain details about the nativity scene traditionally held, such as Jesus’ birth occuring in a stable, have come under critique as well. So lately I have been pondering how to find deep and rich significance in Christmas that goes beyond the traditional activities and narratives we become so easily attached to during the season.
Hi Ron, Is it possible you have TYPO in the title? (Not normally a super-picky type; just trying to be helpful.)
Pannenberg rang so loudly in my ears while reading this!
I knew you would hear that ringing!