The Most Stubborn Day of the Year
Why the World Stops for Christmas
Closed for Christmas. No birth in history has changed the world like that quiet, unsuspecting night in Bethlehem. Two thousand years later, no day marks as many calendars, determines as many schedules, pauses as many businesses, and draws together as many friends and families.
No prophet’s or great teacher’s origin, no king’s or president’s birth, no other single event in the history of the world transcends tribes and nations, continents and hemispheres, epochs and ages, liberal college campuses and secular places of employment, as the birth of one Jesus of Nazareth. Even the annual calendar at Hogwarts is set in time with Christmas Day.
And this peculiar influence is no accident of history. When we pause to ponder the surprise that this “present evil age,” at least for now, nearly shuts down for Christmas, we see the wink and smile of God. Rightly has no birth story, the world over, been rehearsed even nearly as often as the day that God himself, in the person of his Son, was born among us as one of us, fully God and fully human, to save his people from their sin.
God and Man in One
Of course, to mark the birth of “God himself” is far more controversial than just “Jesus of Nazareth.” Historically, the birth of the latter is hard to deny with a level head. Yet, the heart of the Christian faith pulses with “Jesus of Nazareth” as “God himself.”
“On Christmas Day, we celebrate the birth of ‘the God-man’ — man like every other, and God like no other.”
On Christmas Day, we celebrate the birth of “the God-man” — man like every other, and God like no other. A long history of devout and deliberate thought and tense dialogue has taught us to call him, among countless other names, “the God-man.”
Names from Scripture
Most of our many names and titles for Jesus come from the Scriptures themselves: He is “the Word,” the eternal, uncreated Logos who was in the beginning with God, and through whom God made the world. He is the long-promised, singular “seed of the woman,” who crushes the serpent’s head. He is the prophesied Son of David, anointed heir to Israel’s throne, the shoot and branch that grow again from the severed tree, and stump, of exile. As David’s son, he is “son of God” as Israel’s king, and “Son of God” as the eternal Son of the divine Father.
Veiled in flesh, he moved among us as the enigmatic “Son of Man,” manifestly human, but also harkening to Daniel’s shadowy figure approaching the throne of heaven to receive worldwide dominion from the Ancient of Days. He comes as Alpha and Omega, yet Suffering Servant and Lamb of God, giving himself to rescue sinners. And most shockingly, breathtakingly, awe-inspiringly, as the apostles make plain, he is God himself, not only divine in some general sense but specifically, and even more daringly, as Lord (kurios), somehow Yahweh himself among us, as one of us.
But nowhere in Scripture do we hear, in as many words, that he is “God-man.” When we call him that, and mark Christmas Day as the birth of such, we are not repeating strictly biblical terms. Rather, we are drawing on the fruit of theology. We are benefiting from the sweat and blood of centuries of faithful voices who responded to those who erred in trying to bottle up the mystery.
For the apostles, and first Christians, it was very clear that Jesus was fully human. None doubted it in that first generation. His mother knew it; she birthed him. His brothers and sisters knew it; they lived with him, ate with him, touched him, heard his voice. So too his disciples who walked with him for three years, and saw his undeniable humanness in public and private. Large crowds witnessed his teaching and miracles, saw him ride into Jerusalem on a humble steed, stand trial, endure slander, carry his own cross, and die on it horrifically under a sky that went black. And Paul writes that “more than five hundred brothers at one time” (1 Corinthians 15:6) saw Jesus alive again after his crucifixion.
But what wasn’t yet plain — and what his disciples progressively came to realize, all too slowly, during his life and ministry, and then climactically with his resurrection from the dead — was that this Jesus was no mere human. Human he was, without dispute. But somehow Yahweh himself had come in this man, not figuratively but literally — not just “in spirit” but actually in the flesh, truly man, with a reasoning soul and body.
The disciples, and those being added to their number, came to worship Jesus, as first-century Jews otherwise could not fathom. Jews inarguably did not worship Moses. They did not worship David. They did not worship Elijah. But remarkably, Jewish though they were, the risen Christ they worshiped (Matthew 28:9, 17; Luke 24:52).
So, the first question of Jesus’s disciples and their contemporaries was not, Is he human? but, Is he God? That question came to be answered by the resurrection.
Can God Be Man?
Consider, then, how this changed in subsequent generations, at least among those who confessed “Jesus is Lord,” as the starting place of their faith and worship. For later Christians — who worshiped him, but did not hear him, see him, touch him for themselves — his Godness was the given; his humanity might be less certain. Some were prone to ask, Can the one who is God be truly man?
To far oversimplify, but give some sense of the challenges from all sides, Greek influence led to Gnostic claims that Christ couldn’t really be man, but only seemed to be (Docetism), while the heights of Hebrew monotheism led to Ebionite claims that he couldn’t really be God. And as test after test arose in those first centuries, the central truths about who Jesus is were not developed as much as defended.
The church and her councils did not provide further revelation about Jesus — the apostles did not waver on his humanity or deity. Rather, the Fathers and creeds sought to protect the faith once for all delivered to the saints. No ecumenical council made Jesus the God-man in a way that he wasn’t already in the apostolic writings and at the Father’s right hand.
Can Man Be God?
When third-century Arians asked, Is he truly God and not just God’s first and greatest creature? the council at Nicea (325) answered, He is truly God: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of the same essence as the Father.” Then subsequently, when Apollinaris of Laodicea, renowned defender of Christ’s deity, raised new questions about the extent of his humanity, the council at Constantinople (381) answered, Jesus is fully man, including a human mind in addition to the divine.
Later, when the influence of Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople, led some to question, Is he really one person, or two? the council at Ephesus (431) answered, He is one person indeed. And when Eutyches of Constantinople and others, in response, so emphasized Christ’s oneness to question, Does he have two natures? the council of Chalcedon (451) answered, He is fully God, and fully man — one person with two complete and uncompromised natures: “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”
Jesus was not first declared to be the Son of God at Nicea in 325. He went fully public as divine Son by his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). The church received him as such, then and there, and so became the church. The entirety of the New Testament documents received him as such, not only by the prose of direct assertion but through a web of poetic hints, divine overtures, frank acknowledgment, and glimpses of peculiar glory that stretch across and attach to every page from Matthew to the book of Revelation.
Made for Christmas
On Christmas Day, we celebrate a great heritage in remembering the birth of the Lord God Almighty. Jesus is Lord: preexistent, uncreated, God himself and fully God. Jesus is Savior: fully human, all the way from humble birth to sacrificial death, assuming our human body, emotions, mind, and will to save us. And he is Treasure: fully God and fully man in one spectacular, risen, reigning person. He is the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:46), the Surpassing Worth (Philippians 3:8), who not only satisfies all that God requires of man, and satisfies the requirements of divine justice in view of our sin, but uniquely satisfies the human soul with his unique human-divinity.
“We were not only made for God; we were made for the God-man.”
We were not only made for God; we were made for the God-man.
Which may help explain why his birth still stubbornly haunts the calendars of the professing secular today. Perhaps it’s more than just historical and practical. Perhaps the goodness that Christmas whispers not only closes businesses on December 25 but lingers in the subconscious, leaving even calloused hearts longing for such a rescue.
The God-man has come, for us and for our salvation.