Before There Was Christmas
Where does the Christmas story begin? If we watch a play, a movie, or hear a telling of the birth of Jesus, it usually begins with the announcement of his birth to his mother Mary, courtesy of an angelic visitor. But Mary's supernatural visit is preceded in Luke's Gospel by the whole account of the announcement of John the Baptist's birth. Matthew's Gospel, after running through Jesus' family tree, starts with Joseph getting the news about Mary's pregnancy. Mark skips the Christmas story altogether, eager to get on with the account of Jesus' earthly ministry.
But it is John's Gospel that gets the award for earliest starting point. John opens his account echoing the words of Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning." And that is how far back our understanding of Christmas needs to look. Before the angels and shepherds, before the star and the manger, there was God. Jesus was there at creation, all things were created through him (Colossians 1:16. John 1:3).
Consider the songs we sing at Christmastime. How is Jesus described? "Glory to the newborn king!" "Worship Christ the newborn king!" "Holy infant, so tender and mild." Jesus is a little baby - a baby with a destiny. And there's nothing wrong with any of that - it's all very true and wonderful and amazing. The problem is, we might miss out on how wonderful and amazing it really is if we don't also sing about what made that baby so unique. For example, when we sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful," everyone is loud and strong on the first verse. But what about the second verse, which pulls language from the Nicene Creed? "God of God, Light of Light... very God, begotten, not created."
That's the miracle of Christmas - that the newborn king is also the eternal and almighty God, the one who created the world into which he was born.
One of my favorite Christmas hymns on this topic is an ancient one - written only a few centuries after the first Christmas, it looks at the story not from the perspective of the world that witnessed his birth, but from the perspective of the eternal heavens that sent him. He is the one that the angels praised in Isaiah 6:1-4, veiling their faces. The one whose glories filled the heavens with light before there was sun and stars. How did he then take on human flesh? Why did he do it? That is the joyous message of Christmas.
(you can listen to the song here or here)
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture, in the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful his own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.
At his feet the six wingèd seraph, cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence, as with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Lord Most High!