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New Horizons

The Heart of Christmas

Marianne and William Radius

Every baby comes into the world crying. Doctors tell you, matter-of-factly, that a baby is “programmed” to cry with the first breath he draws, in order to expand his lungs. Psychologists see in those first tears a cry of protest at being torn loose from the warmth and security of his mother’s body the infant forced suddenly for the first time to breathe and to eat for himself.

In any case, the cries are soon quieted. The baby is bathed, wrapped in a warm blanket, held in loving arms, patiently coaxed to suck at his mother’s breast. And his mother, as the Bible tells us, quickly forgets her pain for the joy that a man is born into the world.

Our Savior, we must suppose, also came into this world crying. For He was spared none of the pain and heartache that is our common human lot. Is it not strange that not one of the beautiful paintings or sculptures of the Madonna and child shows a crying baby? Indeed, over this child, as over no other child in history, hung a shadow, the shadow of a cross. You and I are born to live. He was born to die.

His smallness laden with our sin;
Born that His birthcries might begin.
Full thirty year of tragedy,
Each step a step toward Calvary.
          (Geerhardus Vos)

For us, Christmas is a time of joy. We are surrounded by music, flowers, parties, gifts, family get-togethers, and church services ringing with glad carols. This joy reflects the general tone of the Christmas stories recorded for us in Matthew and in Luke. There the angels sing, the shepherds kneel in worship, the wise men bring gifts, and Anna and Simeon rejoice that their eyes have seen God’s salvation. No shadow, and no cross intrudes on the scene. But throughout the Gospels the disciples are literally dragged uncomprehending to the disaster, as it seemed to them, of Golgotha. “Our chief rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:20). All the lights of Christmas had gone out!

But the earliest of the Christmas stories sees not only the shadow of the cross, but understands that the cross is the very heart of Christmas. This first written account of what Christmas means is found not in the Gospels, but, surprisingly, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This letter was written about twenty years after the death of Jesus, and at least fifteen years before the first of our Gospels was written down.

Paul does not begin his Christmas account with the census and the travel of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, nor with the shepherds listening to heavenly music on the hillside, nor even with the angel Gabriel announcing to young Mary the amazing event she must expect nine months later. Paul starts much farther back, actually before time, in the timeless counsels of eternity, where God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—plans our salvation, encompassing the whole of history: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and the still longed-for Parousia, the blessed return of our Savior on the clouds of heaven.

So he wrote to his dear friends at Philippi: Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5–8).

These words are perhaps the most profound interpretation of the meaning of the incarnation in our entire New Testament. They have been studied for centuries, by the best minds in the Christian church. What does Paul mean when he says that Christ Jesus “emptied himself”? What does the Holy Spirit want us to understand by these words?

How can we put it so that it strikes home to us how amazing this was? Sometimes, when we have been trying to help someone in serious trouble, or in great grief, we say afterwards, “I felt just drained.” But this doesn’t really tell us what Paul means. For when we say this, what we are talking about is a feeling of exhaustion. After a time of rest we will no longer feel drained.

For Jesus the emptiness was not a feeling; it was a reality. It was not something that passed after a few days of rest. It lasted all the thirty or more years of His human life. Jesus emptied Himself when He took upon Himself our human nature. It is hard for us to understand how the Son of God, through whom the world was created, could possibly embody Himself in human flesh. It stretches our mind beyond comprehension. We can’t help feeling that this mighty Inhabitant would shatter the frail human nature He had assumed, just as a powerful electric current will blow out a 15-watt fuse.

Let us explain in a different way. You would definitely “empty yourself” if you became embodied in an animal–say a dog, or a cat. If you can imagine this, you catch just a tiny glimpse of what this emptying Himself meant to Jesus. But only a faint glimpse, for the gap between God and man is far greater than the gap between man and animal. When Jesus emptied Himself, He voluntarily accepted all the sorrows, trials, sicknesses, frailties, and temptations to which our human nature has been subject ever since Adam sinned.

But the incarnation is more than this. Jesus came to us not as a man, in the strength of his manhood. He came as a baby. How would you feel about becoming a helpless baby again, after you have been an adult? No creature’s young is as helpless as a human baby. He has to be fed, and washed, and clothed, and warmed, or he will die. Jesus came as a baby so helpless that He could not hold up His own head, He could not sit up, He could not creep, or walk, or talk. He who owned the cattle on a thousand hills could not handle a spoon to feed Himself. He who made the cotton plant, and the flax plant, and the wool on a sheep’s back to clothe naked men, He could not put on His own clothes. All that was part of emptying Himself.

He came to a young, inexperienced girl, not yet married. There was necessarily some scandal associated with this. You can be sure there were sneering smiles and evil laughter and ugly whispers when Mary, not yet married, began to show that she was pregnant. That was part of emptying Himself.

He was not born in a hospital, with doctors and nurses in attendance, with flowers in his mother’s room, and delicious food brought on trays at mealtimes. He was not even born in Mary’s mother’s simple one-room home in Nazareth. He was born on a journey, a long, exhausting, bone-racking journey, commanded by the Roman emperor who cared nothing that Mary’s birthtime was at hand.

And when they reached Bethlehem at last, there was not even the shelter of the inn. Not that this would have been much comfort. For the “inn” was only a square porch enclosing an open field where animals could eat and sleep, while their owners built open fires to feed themselves, and then, covering themselves with a blanket, lay down to rest on the bare boards of the roofed-over porch. It was noisy, smelly, crowded, with no privacy at all. Not a very good place to have a baby. But too good for God’s Son! No, he was born in the cave across the road, where sheep were sheltered in cold weather. His cradle was a pile of hay. That was part of emptying Himself.

He who was King of kings was born into a poor family. His stepfather, Joseph, could not even afford the usual offering for a firstborn son, a lamb, but had to offer instead two doves, the substitute offering God graciously allowed when parents were too poor to bring a lamb.

He was born secretly. Have you ever thought of that? There were no heralds going up and down the streets to announce a king’s son had been born. There were no bells ringing, no feasts of celebration. There weren’t even any birth announcements sent out to family and friends. Nobody in crowded Bethlehem knew what had happened except Joseph and Mary and the rough shepherds on the hillside outside the village. And when the wise men arrived later at the palace of King Herod in Jerusalem, nobody there had heard anything about the Christmas Good News. Nor were any of them interested enough to go down to Bethlehem to see for themselves what all this was about. That was part of emptying Himself.

And then He had to escape by night to a strange land to save His life from the jealous suspicions of King Herod. It was an another weary journey, this time for a mother with a small baby. That was part of emptying Himself.

When He grew up, He was often hungry. He went forty days without any food at the beginning of His ministry. He was often tired. The people so crowded around Him, He had scarcely time to sleep or eat. He had no royal horse to ride, but had to walk all of the many hundreds of miles during His three-year preaching ministry. At the very end of His life He had to borrow someone else’s donkey for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He never owned a house. Foxes, He said, have at least holes in the ground, and birds have nests, but I have no place to rest My head. Like Jacob so long before, He often slept in the open, under the sky, with a stone for His pillow. That was part of emptying Himself.

He had tremendous power, and He used it to help the sick, and the grieving, and the crippled. But He never once used this power to make His own life easier. Even more, for the thirty-odd years of His life, he carried with Him the burden of our sins. He, who knew no sin, was made sin for our sakes. When He stepped out of the Jordan River, He had bent His back beneath that invisible burden that weighed Him down as long as He lived. “Surely he had borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” Isaiah tells us. “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:4, 6). That was part of emptying Himself.

When at last He came to die, we see this emptying of Himself in all its terror and horror. For at the last He emptied Himself even of the comforting presence and love of His Father, and, taking our place (for it was we who deserved to be deserted by God), cried out in dreadful anguish, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” That was part of emptying Himself.

And then came the grave. The dead body, disfigured and distorted by suffering, was taken down from the cross and buried in the earth. Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return, God had said. That was the final humiliation. That was the draining of the last dregs of the cup God gave Him to drink.

But though it is well for us to ponder what it meant for our Savior to empty Himself, Paul would not have us stop there. Our Christmas should not just be a moment of festivity and joy to be forgotten as soon as the lights go out and the ornaments are packed away. No, Paul mentions the Christmas event in order to call his Philippian friends to a new dedication to the Christ-like life.

When this letter was first read to the church at Philippi, how surprised the people must have been to hear these startling words: “Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God … emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Perhaps the Philippians asked the reader to stop and read the passage again. What was Paul talking about? And why this sudden reference to thoughts they could scarcely grasp? “Go back to the beginning of this part of the letter,” they must have said. And so the reader repeats:

“If there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy, by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus …” (2:1–5).

Years later, Mark was to put into writing Jesus’ own words about the Christian life, a little story which, though the Gospel had not yet been written down, was almost certainly familiar to Paul. You remember the scene. The two sons of Zebedee asked if one of them could sit on Jesus’ right hand, and one on His left, when He came in His glory. Jesus called His disciples around Him.

“You know,” He said, “that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them. But it shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” And then Jesus added the clearest words in this Gospel to explain why He came to earth that first Christmas: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45).

To give His life as a ransom for many is something only our Savior could do. But those of us who have been ransomed from sin and death by His emptying of Himself are called upon to empty ourselves, each counting the other better than himself, each of us looking not to our interests, but to the interests of others.

Christmas calls us not to feasting and piled-up gifts and self-gratification, but instead to servanthood, walking the path Jesus walked before us, in lowliness of mind. If we carry with us into the New Year the memory of the King of kings and the Lord of lords sleeping on a pile of hay in a cave rudely hollowed out of the hillside, and keep this picture forever burned upon our minds as a pattern for our own lives, then our Christmas will be blessed indeed.

Marianne Radius, the daughter of Geerhardus and Catherine Vos, was a noted children’s author. Her books included The Tent of God and God with Us (renamed Ninety Story Sermons for Children’s Church). She was married to William Radius, a professor of classics at Calvin College. This article is a reprint of The Heart of Christmas, copyright 1978 by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group (www.bakerpublishinggroup.com). Used by permission. New Horizons, December 2016.

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