The most important historian in my life is the one who described his research project in this way:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, TNIV)
What he documented in what we’ve come to regard as the second chapter of his book was nothing less than the hinge on which all history turns. Here it is in what’s still the most influential translation of his account into my native tongue, a translation coming to the end of a year-long 400th birthday celebration:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:1-21, KJV)
Not just “the Christmas story,” or even “Nativity” — this is Incarnation: the Word made flesh and beginning his dwelling among us (John 1:14).
One day last year in Bethel’s introductory Christianity and Western Culture class, we realized that we might have been assuming too much theological literacy among our students when one of them asked, “What’s the Incarnation?” (Followed by, “What’s the Trinity?”)
In a recent essay for Christianity Today, Jeff McSwain considers why Incarnation (probably more so among evangelicals than their Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant cousins) sometimes gets lost in the shuffle:
If the Incarnation has been overlooked, perhaps it is because of the temptation to assess the events of Jesus’ humanity—his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension—only as building on one another in some unlocking, chronological way. This is natural to do because of the temporal, historical nature of Jesus’ earthly life. Unfortunately, the result of such an approach is that it can relegate God’s mind-blowing assumption of our humanity to something like a means to an end—the end being the crescendo of Easter.
Yes, the Word enters into history and so partakes of its particularity and finitude; to deny that would be to deny the humanity of Christ. But He is also fully God, and in eternity, McSwain proposes, events interact differently with each other than in time as we perceive it. So:
The event of the birth of Christ, then, contains all the others. Bundled in the manger is the salvation of the world. The Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension are all present implicitly in the baby Jesus, only to be unpacked over the next thirty-plus years. Far from being secondary, the Incarnation is in a very real sense our saving moment! At Christmas we can thank the Lord with Simeon: “For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30). We say this not only because we are looking backward through the Cross to the crib but also because, from the very beginning, even before Adam fell, God was looking “forward” through the crib to the Cross!
Let the words of Simeon’s famous prayer (Luke 2:29-32) be the benediction to this brief Christmas Day post, as memorably *set to music by the British composer Geoffrey Burgon:
*For the closing credits sequence of the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (recently remade as a movie starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth). It seems strangely appropriate to have the “Nunc Dimittis” resolve such a byzantine tale of manipulation and deceit, since the Incarnation comes to a world so dark that it can’t comprehend (or overcome) the Light that enters it.