Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

The Greater Miracle of Christmas (Sept – Dec 1994)

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by Rubel Shelly
September – December, 1994

The deity of Jesus Christ is proclaimed at his cradle. And without the truth of incarnation proclaimed there, the preaching of an atoning death at Calvary becomes a heartless hoax.

Mary attests his miraculous conception both by her shock at the possibility of being pregnant (Luke 2:34) and by her immediate, innocent journey to the home of a priest (Luke 2:39ff).

Joseph bears indirect witness to the virginal conception by his horror at the idea that the girl betrothed to him could be pregnant (Matthew 1:18ff). He had trusted her as a woman of purity and integrity, and he knew that he could not have fathered a child by her.

But why does it matter? What is at stake with the claim that Jesus was conceived of a virgin? Every child conceived by the normal process of uniting sperm and egg results in the creation of a new individual. By the process of human conception, someone who has never existed prior to that event comes into being. Even if we debate the question “When does the conceptus receive a spirit?”, what cannot be debated is that, from that moment forward, the conceptus has its own distinctive genetic code that is different from (though derived through) the parents.

If Jesus is God in the flesh, though, he cannot be a “new individual.” He is the enfleshment of the extant-from-eternity-past Logos.

Thus the virginal conception was a practical necessity if God came to tabernacle in flesh. No icing-on-the-cake miracle this, but a unique means to a unique end. So the very fact of the virgin birth is a proclamation of Jesus’ deity.

Add to that the angelic visitations, revelations to such diverse persons as the shepherds and Elizabeth and Anna, and the fulfillment of biblical predictions through the Old Testament prophets, and there can be no doubt that the baby born in an animal shelter at Bethlehem that night is Christ the Lord.

The desire of some to separate the infancy narratives from the later accounts of the Sermon on the Mount or his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is absurd. If the former is “legend,” the latter cannot be thought historical. If the latter are accepted as “historical,” though, how dare we reject the former as legendary! The story of Jesus’ life is continuous, and to jettison the birth story as myth is to dismantle the whole story beyond any possible reconstruction.

Yet the miracle of that night in Bethlehem was not so much the conception nine months earlier as the sheer mundaneness—no, the utter impotence—of the Christ child.

The Creator, Sustainer, and Soon-to-Be-Savior of the world entered his creation as a helpless outcast. He was the child of poor peasants, for Joseph and Mary would have to offer the sacrifice of the poor for Mary’s purification at the temple (Luke 2:22-25; cf. Leviticus 12:8). His first bed was an animal feeding trough, for a manger was the best Joseph could find on the night of his foster-son’s birth (Luke 2:7). His first visitors were shepherds, such outcasts themselves that the Talmud forbids taking their testimony at formal hearings (Luke 2:8ff).

Why do it this way?

Deity had taken human form to visit Abraham near Mamre and to wrestle with Jacob at Peniel. Perhaps it was the Eternal Word who assumed flesh in those divine visitations. So why not simply take human form as an adult, teach for three and a half years, and go to Calvary? Why go through all the “preliminaries” of birth, adolescence, education, and the like?

It was for us that he took every step from the cradle to the cross. He ran the gamut of human experiences. He allowed himself to be put to the test in every way imaginable. For some who could never bring themselves to identify with a heroic adult teacher and miracle worker can identify with a child born as an outcast, born in the context of gossip and whispers, born to poverty. You see, there are some of us who do not see ourselves as heroic and who will never do a heroic deed. And Jesus wanted to save us, too!

So the great miracle of the Christmas Story is less the angels than the straw, not so much the virginity of the mother as her poverty. That God would come so humbly and gently gives even a sinner like me the boldness to believe that he came to redeem me.

By means of this special Christmas issue of Wineskins, celebrate again the coming of the Holy Child to save you!

Rubel Shelly

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