“The Nativity of the Lord God and our Savior Jesus Christ”
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God,
The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. — Isaiah 9:6 KJV
So begins one of my favorite pieces of music at Christmastime. This passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah celebrating the coronation of King Hezekiah has long been seen in Christian tradition as a prefiguring of the birth of Christ. And indeed, through the musical genius of Händel, this verse is now inextricably linked with modern celebrations of the Nativity.
But as I reflect on the “child is born” I can’t help but be reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague not too long ago in which we discussed the darker side of some versions of the Christmas message. For there are some who are fond of saying that the child who is born to us, the son given to us, was “born to die.” It’s the kind of thing that can certainly put a damper on the celebrations of the birth of the baby Jesus.
I understand where that comes from, of course. It comes from a view of Jesus’ salvation as having been accomplished by his atoning death. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for our sins and like the sacred red heifer bred for sacrifice in the Temple, Jesus was born for this purpose. Born to be the substitutionary sacrifice for our death penalty. Born to die. It is a very common view of Jesus’ salvation, especially in the West, where we are fond of crime and punishment metaphors. But it is not the only theory of atonement out there. There have been many over the centuries. Those who saw Jesus’ atonement as a kind of ransom. Those who see his atonement in his resurrection, not in his death. And those who see salvation in the divine declarations of solidarity with us in life, in death, and in new life.
For me, this last one is especially powerful at Christmas. For the idea that the very Word of God should become flesh, should dwell with us, should come to us as a defenseless, utterly dependent, weak, and helpless child, is a staggering declaration of the Solidarity of God. It is a reminder that there is no aspect of our lives that is apart from God. In our weakness and in our strength, in our joys and sorrows, in our sufferings and our celebrations, in our living and our dying, there God is with us.
That is the real power of the Christmas story. The humble babe lying in a manger represents for us God coming to us fully. Not distant and removed. Not impassable and unreachable. But there. With us. That is cause for singing greater than the celebration of the birth of a sacrifice. It is the cause for real joy. We are not alone. God is with us. Immanuel.
There will be those who will nevertheless insist on recognizing that Jesus was born to die. Myself, I prefer to echo the words of another favorite Christmas song, that old Charles Wesley hymn:
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
United Methodist Chaplain