A couple of years ago, my husband and I had the opportunity to take a trip to Israel. Friends of ours had recently returned to their home in Tel Aviv after a stint in the U. S. and invited us to visit them. So, after convincing the grandparents to babysit and getting our tickets and passports in order, we took off on the trip of a lifetime. Over the next week, we drank coffee on the boardwalk as the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea; we meandered along the ancient alley ways of Joppa; and we experienced a rare desert thunderstorm in the Negev, watching with reverence as the water came rushing down the hillsides flooding wadis that only moments before had been bone dry.
One afternoon on the final leg of the trip, we found ourselves on the streets of Old Nazareth, a picturesque city of white buildings and terra cotta roofs nestled in the rocky Galilean hillside. Like the rest of the Holy Land, Nazareth is layered with history. It was the home of both Mary and Joseph, and is the boyhood home of Jesus. It boasts the place where Gabriel announced the news of the coming Messiah, and Joseph's carpenter shop where he labored to provide for his young family. And much like rest of the Holy Land, this history has been preserved in soaring cathedrals, climate-controlled museums, and walking tours.
The streets were busy with people coming and going—shopkeepers were trying to get the attention of passersby, and mothers were herding small children from one point to another. As I walked down the street, I almost collided with a group of young boys—no more than seven or eight years old—who were presumably on their way home from school. They were playing a game of tag, too engrossed in wrestling and jostling each other to notice me. I quickly stepped out of their way, but as I did, one of them looked up at me.
And in that instant, as our eyes met, Nazareth came alive. In that instant, the boyhood home of Jesus—a town of cathedrals and carefully preserved relics and historically correct walking tours—revealed itself to me in this boy's face. His bright, laughing eyes, the energy that pulsed through his body as he twisted to escape the touch of his friend, the very distinct possibility that he was meant to be somewhere else at that moment. Suddenly, I realized these were the same streets that a young Jesus had played on nearly 2,000 years earlier. These were the streets where he'd laughed and wandered and run errands for his mother. These were the streets where he had lived.
The boys continued on their way, but I couldn't. I stopped, trying to understand what I had just witnessed. And suddenly I understood. The perfect image of God could not be represented in statues of stone or wood but in the only thing that was ever intended to bear his image—in flesh and blood. Suddenly I understood the truth of Christmas.
Celebrating the Incarnation
In Western society, Christmas has become increasingly secularized. We watch with dismay as our children are bombarded with messages of materialism, and we fight for our own sense of peace and good will in the midst of all the gift buying, party prep, and Pinterest-perfect decorating schemes. In response, we do our best to reclaim Christmas. We remind each other of the "reason for the season," that he was born to die. We preach that the manger is not enough, that there must also be a cross and an empty tomb. But even as we do this, I wonder if we're not missing the point of Christmas ourselves? Is it possible we're overlooking the significance of the manger?
Throughout church history, Christmas has been devoted to celebrating what theologians call the "Incarnation." We are celebrating the time when God wrapped himself in human flesh and entered the world in the form of a baby. John puts it this way in his gospel:
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father's one and only Son. (John 1:14).
Later in his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes the Incarnation this way:
Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. (Philippians 2:6–7)
The mystery and wonder of Christmas is not simply that Jesus would eventually die and be raised again—that is the mystery and wonder of Easter. Rather, the mystery and wonder of Christmas is that God took on human flesh in the first place. The mystery and wonder of Christmas is that God reduced himself to an embryo, spent nine months developing in the womb of a young Galilean girl, and eventually came into his creation the same way that each one of us did. The mystery and wonder of Christmas is that he was born.
Becoming who he is
In this sense, the story of the Incarnation actually starts further back than the manger. It starts in Eden when God first made us in his image. Unlike the rest of creation, as majestic and glorious as it is, we human beings hold a special place of privilege and responsibility in the world. We were made to reflect and represent God—to show each other what he's like. But as Scripture teaches us, we failed to do this—we failed to live as we were created to live.
So because we wouldn't, he did.
The God who made us, the God who fashioned us out of the dust to display his glory, will not leave his image-bearer helpless and broken. When the time was right, he came as a child to rescue his children. Because we had left him, he came to us. Because we would not humble ourselves, he humbled himself. Because we would not obey, he obeyed perfectly.
Sometime in the second century, Irenaeus captured the mystery of the Incarnation with these words: "He became what we are that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself." The point of Christmas—the point of Jesus becoming a human being—is that we could once again be restored to what we have always been meant to be: people who reflect his glory. People who one day will be transformed into the likeness of Christ himself.
C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, once wrote that God's plan for his sons and daughters is to make them into:
dazzling, radiant, immortal creature[s], pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness." (Mere Christianity)
And Jesus coming to live in human flesh was the first step in that process.
Keeping Christ in Christmas
I wanted—no, I needed—to remember the light in the boy's eyes, the life flowing through his body. I needed to remember that as certainly as he had wrestled and run that day on the streets of Nazareth, my God had humbled himself to do the same nearly 2,000 years earlier.
This Christmas as you celebrate the birth of Jesus, embrace this mystery. Embrace the mystery of God become man. Be humbled by the grace of a God who would love his children so much that he would become one of them in order to lift them unto himself. This Christmas, remember the manger.
Hannah Anderson is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of the upcoming book, Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God's Image (Moody, April 2014). She lives with her husband and three children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You can connect with her at her blog sometimesalight.com and on Twitter @sometimesalight.