At Christmastime, Christians celebrate the greatest event that has ever taken place—the greatest event that ever will take place. It is not a victory in war. It is not a world championship in sports. It is not a triumph of medicine or technology. It is not a great scientific breakthrough. It is not a political or economic breakthrough. It does not fit into any of our usual categories of great events. It is in a category all its own. It is unique in history. Though the world is still not sure exactly what happened, we number the years of our history forward and backward from this event.
What is the great event that forms the centerpiece of our world’s history?
It is the birth of the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Not a great, flashy current event that would, in our day, have its brief moment of fame in the media and then be forgotten a few days, weeks, or years later. The birth of a baby. A birth that was noticed only by a few shepherds, prophets, and wise men who were told by angels. A birth that took place, not in the ornate halls of a royal palace, but in a village—and in that village, not in a comfortable bedroom in a house or inn, but in a place where animals lived.
That is how the God of the universe chose to come to us. “A bruised reed he will not break,” says the prophet (Isaiah 42:3). God did not want to overwhelm us with grand miracles, forcing on us a belief that would be only skin deep. No, God came to us gently, with the innocence of a baby—not demanding, but asking graciously for our faith, our love, and our obedience. The Lord stands and knocks at the door, waiting for us to open it and let him into our lives (Revelation 3:20).
The power of the event
Yet behind that gentle innocence there is a power that goes beyond all our finite human conception. The soul of the baby Jesus was God, the infinite, omnipotent creator of the universe. Within that tiny being that Mary held in her arms was all the power of divine love and wisdom—all focused on that one, small time and place.
We may wish that we could have been there to witness the wondrous events of Jesus’ birth and life. The angels heralding his birth; the wise men from the East bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; the boy Jesus in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions; the colorful and compelling preaching; the teaching given with authority and power; the loving work of healing the sick. Wouldn’t our faith be so much stronger if we could only have seen the Lord with our own eyes? If we could have heard his powerful words? If our loved ones could be healed by the touch of his hands?
The Lord gives us something much more precious than physical healing or the sound of his voice. He does not leave us desolate; he comes to us in spirit and in truth (see John 14:15–18). After nearly two thousand years, we continue to celebrate the physical event of God’s birth as a baby on earth. Yet it is the spiritual event within that gives that physical event power. It is God coming to each one of us today—right now—that is the real reason we continue to celebrate an event that took place so many centuries ago.
Physically, the Lord needed to be born only once. But spiritually, he is born just as often as we receive him into our hearts in a new way. He gave us an example for all time: the example of his life on earth. That example is recorded in the Bible for us to read and learn from. We know the story of the Lord’s birth. We know something of his teachings in the Bible. We know that he taught us to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34, 15:12).
Knowledge is not enough
Our knowledge of Jesus’ teachings is good. It enables us to live as human beings rather than as animals. It gives us a moral and ethical horizon that goes beyond the mere instinct for survival and reproduction. It beckons us to live from higher principles—principles of love and mutual understanding.
But the mere knowledge of these teachings is not enough. We may know that we should be honest in business. But if we do not bother to put it into practice, it means nothing. We may know that we should treat other people the same way we would wish to have them treat us. But if we cannot get outside of our own feelings of hurt or annoyance enough to empathize with the way others feel, our knowledge of the Golden Rule means nothing. We may know that we should live by the Lord’s teachings, but if we do not follow through with action, our knowledge is mere words, signifying nothing.
The power of love . . . and action
What is the difference between knowing and following the Lord’s teachings? The difference is love. By itself, a knowledge of the wonderful events of Christmas—as magical as they are—will not change anything. But if we love the Lord our God and love other people with a warm, sympathetic, and caring love, then our knowledge about the Lord’s birth is transformed into a real and living birth of the Lord within our hearts and minds.
This is a birth that cannot stay inside of us; it overflows into every part of our life, and into every relationship. It is a birth that transforms us, not from the outside, like a political or scientific breakthrough, but from the inside—from deep within our soul. When we accept the Lord God Jesus Christ into our hearts in welcoming love, then the great power that was focused on the baby Jesus can also be focused on us. We can never fully receive that power as Jesus did. But as much as we do receive it, we become new people—people born, not from mere human decisions and actions, but from God (see John 1:12–13).
This is the good news of great joy that will be for all people. It is the good news that Jesus was born, not just once two thousand years ago, but is born as often as we accept his love and his teachings into our hearts, and express them in our lives. It is a birth of new appreciation for our family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. It is a birth of new joy and contentment in serving the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others. The Lord’s birth in us is our own rebirth as a new person, moved by mutual love and understanding, and serving our fellow human beings with kindness and joy.
Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10–11)
This post is edited from a talk originally delivered on December 24, 1996. Photo credit: Greg Parker, New Forest Observatory.
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