As we reflect on the various characters in the birth narrative of Jesus, we rediscover the meaning of Christmas.
Tis’ the Christmas season again! If we were aliens peering through outer space through a long-range telescope, what would we see? What conclusions would we draw based on all the hustle and bustle, all the glitz and glitter?
A season for travel and family reunions? A shopping extravaganza amid twinkling lights and an unending stream of carols?
A time of goodwill as Santa Claus goes on his rounds distributing goodies? Merriment that never seems to end? Party animals and pub goers reveling till the wee hours of the morning?
From afar, there are few indications that it is a religious festival. Perhaps the scale of the celebrations in the West makes us think it is a cultural celebration.
But if our telescope can peer through walls, its religious significance comes alive. In churches, the message of Christmas is being preached once again. Joy and gratitude are written on a multitude of faces as praise and worship resound throughout the church.
Meanwhile, in relative quiet, families share the joy of Christmas at home over a sumptuous meal. As fathers lead their families in thanking God for His blessings, the children’s thoughts are on the gifts hanging on the Christmas tree.
So far we have pieced together various images through our “viewfinder” in order to decipher the meaning of Christmas. But that is as far as our telescope will take us.
For more, we have to dig into the Bible to discover the real meaning of Christmas. We will need to reflect on the various characters in the birth narrative of Jesus: Mary, the shepherds, the angels, the wise men and Herod. Of course, we shan’t miss out the central figure who is Jesus.
Jesus’ birth had a most unceremonious welcome. According to Micah’s prophecy, he was born in a small village called Bethlehem. At the time of His birth, His earthly parents had to lay him in a manger as the inn was full. To us, it’s unthinkable that the King of Kings was born in a place meant for animals. It’s a distinctive picture of humility by one who had supreme authority.
Christmas redefines greatness. The true measure of a man is not necessarily his ancestry, wealth, power or fame. Let us emulate Jesus whose mission on earth was to serve others.
Mary also demonstrated servanthood. When the angel announced she would bear Jesus in her womb, she availed herself of the chance to become God’s instrument.
A multitude of the heavenly host worshipped God at the time of His birth. Jesus may seem insignificant and lowly, being born in a manger. But has anyone’s birth been heralded by angels?
The shepherds were overjoyed when an angel told them to look for a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth in a manger. Immediately they went to Bethlehem to greet the baby. And having seen the infant, exactly like what the angel had told them, they went away glorifying and praising God.
The wise men from the East were looking for the baby who would become the King of the Jews. Though they were intellectuals, they were spiritually sensitive. They rejoiced that a star would go before them, guiding them all the way to the birth place of Jesus. When they found the infant, they fell down and worshipped Him.
The gifts they offered Jesus– gold, frankincense and myrrh – were most appropriate, befitting the offices Jesus would assume in His adult life. Gold speaks of His kingship, frankincense reflects His role as High Priest and myrrh symbolises His agony at the cross.
Herod, on the other hand, personifies those who live for themselves. He had a personal agenda when he told the wise men to look for baby Jesus as he too would like to worship Him. In fact, he wanted to kill the infant, perceiving Him as a threat to his kingship.
But his evil designs failed to bear fruit. Truth always triumphs over evil in the final analysis, regardless of any attempt by man to ignore, suppress or violate it. Through the centuries, many Christians have been persecuted and even killed for their faith. Nevertheless, the Christmas story of this exquisite baby, whose crib was a feeding trough for animals, still continues to be propagated far and wide. *
The various characters in the birth narrative of Jesus are like the protagonists in a play. When we reflect on their qualities, we rediscover the meaning of Christmas.
Christmas is about giving. We can give without loving others. But we cannot love others without giving of ourselves. Jesus loved us by giving away His life. The wise men presented meaningful gifts. Mary also gave, allowing her womb to be used for Jesus’ conception.
Christmas is aboutjoy. The angels, shepherds and wise men rejoiced as they worshipped the special baby.
The heart of Christmas is God’s love. God showed His love for us by sending Christ to die on the cross for us. God punished Christ – instead of us – for our sins. In other words, Christ became the scapegoat. This is the central message of Christmas – the Good News that God forgives all, provided they believe Christ died for their sins.
Christmas is also a time forreflection. Let us learn from Mary who treasured up all the wonderful events in her life, pondering them in her heart. She might have thought: What on earth is happening? The one I’m carrying in my womb is no ordinary baby. His conception has been supernatural. Even angels rejoice and worship at His birth.
The God who spoke long ago to the wise men and shepherds still speaks to us today –whether we’re intellectuals or simple folks. What matters is whether our hearts are open or not – and whether we have faith. We must not let the twinkling lights of Christmas distract us from its true meaning.
Christ’s death on the cross is a well-attested event. But that’s only a historical fact. When one believes and confesses that Christ died on the cross for me, it makes a whole world of difference.
As the lyrics of “Christmas isn’t Christmas” ** tell us:
Christmas isn't Christmas till it happens in your heart
Somewhere deep inside you
Is where Christmas really starts
So give your heart to Jesus,
you'll discover when you do
That it's Christmas, really Christmas for you.
So what is the reason for this season of celebration? It is not about the glitz and glitter. It’s about the grace of God. It’s about a merciful God who forgives our sins. He wants to draw us into an everlasting relationship with Him, one that transcends our earthly life into eternity.
** Music by Jimmy & Carol Owens. Lyrics by Carol Owen (abridged version).
The above article appeared in the Dec 2012 issue of Asian Beacon.
*ONE SOLITARY LIFE
James Allan Francis spoke of the impact made by Jesus’ life:
Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another obscure village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty, and then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself. He had nothing to do with this world except the naked power of His divine manhood.
While still a young man, the tide of public opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth while He was dying—and that was his coat. When he was dead He was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today He is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.
Note: Dr Lim Poh Ann is a medical practitioner. He was the former editor of Asian Beacon magazine (December 2008 – October 2011).