There is a major problem with the Christmas story in Britain: it tends to be ignored – even by Christians. Everyone knows that it is ignored amidst the commercial festivities. But it should also be noted that, because the story is so familiar, it can wash over Christians like warm shower water. Like most people, I love the candlelight services, the cribs, the Christmas trees and the carols. It takes us back to the wonder of childhood Christmases. The nostalgia and sentimentality factors are huge.
But how much do we actually focus on the nature and meaning of the incarnation? One way of doing this is to focus on the story from Mary’s point of view. Many of us don’t emphasize Mary as much as our Catholic friends, but we really should accord her enormous respect for the way she allowed herself to be used in God’s purposes.
Firstly, we can think of:
Mary’s sacrificial commitment
As always, the Bible is very economical with words: “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit (verse 18).
Actually, Mary was making an enormous sacrifice. To begin with she could have lost her beloved Joseph. He, and everyone else, would form the obvious conclusion that Mary had been unfaithful and immoral. He should be given credit for his second reaction: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (verse 19).
Even worse, Mary could have lost her life. The Law was quite clear about it. “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the girl because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
Knowing that she could have lost her beloved Joseph and then been publicly disgraced and stoned to death, Mary responded to the Angel of the Lord who approached her: “I am the Lord’s … May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38f).
Sacrifice is at the heart of Christianity. The greatest sacrifice is, of course, that of Jesus himself. But all Christians are called to sacrifice too. We are called to sacrifice time, energy, autonomy, pleasure, selfish behaviour and selfish ambition. We may well be called on to sacrifice friends and reputation.
Christianity isn’t easy “believism” – “Jesus died for me, I believe it, isn’t it wonderful I’m on my way to heaven.” No, Christianity is a total commitment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength … Love your neighbour as yourself.”
On the personal benefit side, you can’t experience the real benefits of Christianity – the joy, peace and hope – without such a commitment.
Secondly we can think of:
Mary’s staggering calling
The angel reassured Joseph in a dream: “‘What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’” (verses 20-23).
Mary became the “God-bearer.” The almighty eternal Son of God, the agent of creation, who had dwelt in the perfect glory of heaven for all eternity, through whom the universe was created, took upon himself humanity as an embryo in Mary’s womb.
What honour and respect is due to her! What infinitely greater honour and respect is due to him! Think of it: the fullness of the godhead in bodily form dwelt for nine months in her womb. The scientists tell us that the whole of our vast universe was once contained within a singularity: a point which had no dimensions. How much greater is this concept: God incarnate in a young woman’s womb!
But why did Christmas happen? I addressed this question simply in the carol services of our local schools, as follows:
a. God loves each one of us more than we can imagine.
b. But there is a problem: we all think and say and do bad things at times, and we deserve to be punished by God.
c. But God doesn’t want us to be punished.
d. So he thought to himself: “I’ll take the punishment for them.”
e. Then he thought: “What punishment would be great enough for all the wrong things everyone has thought, said and done? …. I know – death. I’ll die for them.
f. But God can’t die – he’s God.
g. Therefore God became a human being so he could die for us.
As the angel said to Joseph: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins” (verse 21).
Christmas is intimately linked with Good Friday. We came to live. He came to die. If we separate Christmas from Good Friday, it becomes just a nice story.
“If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him” (C T Studd).
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction