Image: Illustration by Michael Marsicano
The November 21st online “Christianity Today” magazine had an article by writer Fred Sanders entitled “Why Christmas is Bigger Than Easter”. In part, following is what he wrote:
I remember the disappointment I felt going to church one Christmas when, for whatever reason, I was especially well attuned to the buildup of the whole holiday. It was one of those years when all the carols were really connecting with me, wherever I happened to hear them. (In fact, I especially enjoy hearing them in the ordinary, secular spaces of commerce and errands. There’s nothing quite like pumping gas and hearing “veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity” coming out of the speakers above the pumps!) All month, I was not only gripped by the great doctrines but also cheered by the general jollification. Then came the Christmas sermon itself at my own church: “Baby Jesus Was Born to Die.” The preacher made the point, strongly and directly, that the real meaning of Christmas was actually all about Good Friday and Easter.
I don’t disagree. I’m evangelical, and this was a good gospel sermon. Theologically, I find the preacher’s point exactly right: The incarnation of the Son of God was directed precisely toward the goal of his death and resurrection. “The crib and the cross are hewn out of the same wood,” and though the crib is a condition for the Cross, the Cross is the main event.
What we miss if we turn every nativity meditation into a cross devotion is the chance to view the wider horizon. What we want to spend time pondering every year is that even if Christmas is for the purpose of Easter, there is nevertheless something about Christmas that is bigger than Easter. Or to translate this from seasons to doctrines, the Incarnation is broader than the Atonement, even though it exists for the sake of the Atonement.
For one thing, the Incarnation is broader than the Atonement because in the Incarnation, the Son of God took on human nature. His goal was to save real people, of course, not just the idea of people. But his method was not to reach down and deal individually with here a person, there a person, or even with particular groups. Instead, the Son of God’s first step in carrying out the plan of salvation was to move into human nature itself, the nature that makes all humans human. He took that nature into personal union with himself. To say the least, this is a very large thought. There is something universally human about the Incarnation, both in its raw materials (human nature) and in its implementation (taking up), as well as in its implications. The Son of God took on the human nature that every human has. No human is excluded from this almighty act of God the Son; everyone is implicated. We should pay attention to this universal aspect of the Incarnation and affirm it without any fear of lapsing into universalism. Universalism is the error that all people are, or will be, saved. But acknowledging the universal character of the Incarnation is something else altogether. It means admitting that humanity itself is the target of God’s redeeming love.
If the Son of God became truly, fully human, then God has invested and reinvested in the human project. It’s possible to imagine other ways that God might have plucked individuals out of the fallen human race. But when God the Father set salvation in motion by sending his Son to be among us, he chose the path of closest contact. He affirmed and reaffirmed humanity as a good idea in spite of its sin and alienation.
Another way to glimpse that the Incarnation is broader than the Atonement is to recognize that a broader set of goals is associated with the Incarnation. Atonement is related to sin and forgiveness, but Incarnation is related to divinity and humanity coming into contact in the person of Christ. By becoming incarnate, the Son made himself personally present to humanity in an unprecedentedly intimate way. The total gospel message includes two moments: first that the Son of God came to us, and second that he died and rose for us. The two go together seamlessly. We learn that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, in the first chapter of Matthew. But it is not until the final chapter that the crucified and risen Lord speaks the promise “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20). We would never want to chop the gospel in half by severing those two moments from each other. There is no need to do so. We can acknowledge both, recognizing that one of them is the focus of Christmas and the other the focus of Easter.
As a young convert to the Christian faith, I would often get grumpy (I felt it was righteous jealousy) about the way shallow, secular, seasonal merriment tended to bury the truth under tinsel and jingle bells. But now I think I am beginning to get it. Even beyond the circle of faith, Christmas spreads the rumor that God is not done with humanity. These days I can hardly even stay mad at Coca-Cola Santa or “Home for the Holidays.” They’re not exactly “on message,” theologically speaking, but I don’t expect them to be. I rejoice with them and join in their merriment, even as they have joined into a movement that they don’t fully grasp.
Similar to how Athanasius’s writing “On the Incarnation” can be great Christmas reading that turns out to not be very much about Christmas, Handel’s sacred oratorio “Messiah” is a much-beloved piece of Christmas music that turns out to mostly not be about Christmas. Christians and non-Christians alike gather to hear “For unto us a child is born” and the angels singing, “Glory to God” to the shepherds. But “Messiah” runs over two hours and includes not only the Crucifixion and Resurrection but even the Ascension, the mission of the church, the spread of the gospel, and the return of Christ (which is what “The Hallelujah Chorus” is actually about). In the popular mind, Handel’s Messiah is about the birth of Jesus, but in reality it’s about his entire work as Savior, with its center of gravity in the Atonement. Incarnation is ordered to atonement—this is the gospel we embrace and share—but the message of the Incarnation is bigger than we often realize, and it draws people in. May it expand our own horizons as we come to adore him.