We usually receive presents on two birthdays each year—our own and Jesus Christ’s.
Leading up to Jesus’ birthday, presents are often placed under a Christmas tree in the family room and we enjoy a sense of anticipation as we look at them in their bright wrappings. We might handle one—testing its weight, feeling its shape—trying to work out what it is. Indeed, we might even ask the giver, “What is it?” And he or she might tease, “You’ll never guess!” or “You’ll just have to wait and see!”
But sometimes, after the wait, we open the present and we still don’t “see”. Confused, we juggle it and look at it from different angles, but finally have to ask, “What is it?” or “What’s it for?”
Leading up to Christmas one year, my wife, who is skilled in various handcrafts, spent considerable time making her mother a present. But she was a little disappointed on Christmas Day when her mother unwrapped it and, after a brief examination, asked, “What’s it for?”
As it turned out, it was for a casserole dish. It was a kind of quilted, padded “bag” with a drawstring and its purpose was to keep a casserole dish warm—and also to keep the lid from slipping off if the dish was being transported to a friend’s place for tea or to church for a fellowship lunch. A casserole warmer. Also, my wife explained as her mother cottoned on, if the casserole spilled, the warmer would catch the overflow and prevent a mess in the car—and it could be easily washed, ready for the next use. After the explanation, her mother was quite pleased with her gift and made good use of it for many years.
We cannot properly take pleasure in a gift or thank the giver until we know what the present is and what it is for?
Concerning Christmas, many people can identify the gift God gave to the world on the first Christmas Day, but not so many can explain why God gave us this gift. They know that baby Jesus is the gift, but they do not know (if we may say this respectfully) what he is “for”.
Yet, to be of real “use” to us, we need to understand not only that he came but also why he came. And Christmastime is an ideal time to consider this.
The birth of Jesus Christ is a unique event in human history because it involved the incarnation of God. God the Son became a human being in the womb of a young virgin woman named Mary. He was born in a stable and laid to sleep in a feeding trough. Angels announced his birth, shepherds worshipped him, and wise men gave him gifts. A king tried to kill him, but his stepfather kept him safe by smuggling him out of the country. These are remarkable events and are well worth remembering and celebrating! But why did they happen?
God the Son became Christ the child for a reason. There was a purpose to his coming; and he himself explained that purpose when he grew to be a man and began his ministry.
He said to the people of a certain town, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God … for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).
The Son of God came from heaven to earth for this purpose: to “preach the good news of the kingdom of God”. What is that good news? It is this: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
God’s gift of his Son to us required the death of his Son for us. Jesus understood this perfectly well and he spoke about it several days before his crucifixion. He said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. … Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:23, 27).
The Son of God came from heaven to earth for this purpose: to experience the terrifying hour of his death, to be glorified by being lifted up on a cross, to be crucified as a sacrifice for sinners.
It is interesting to note that Jesus did not command his disciples to remember the hour of his birth, but he did command them to remember the hour of his death. Just before his crucifixion, at the Last Supper, he instituted a memorial service whose sole focus is his body broken and his blood shed for us, a service to be conducted repeatedly by Christians throughout the world until he returns (Matthew 26:26-29; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
This is not to suggest that we should not celebrate Jesus’ birth: it is simply to emphasise that we should never forget his death. His birth finds its meaning in his death. Hence, to be fully meaningful and beneficial, Christmas celebrations should be tinged with Easter lamentations.
What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
Oh, this, this is Christ who came
To die for us and take our blame! *
At Christmastime we rejoice that the Son of God came to earth. But we should not get so caught up with celebrating the fact of his coming that we forget the point of his coming. He came for this purpose: to preach the good news of the kingdom of God and to die on the cross to open a way for us to enter that kingdom.
* “What Child Is This”, a Christmas carol by William Chatterton Dix. The last two lines (in italics) have been written by Andrew Lansdown.
An earlier, shorter version of this article was first published as a pamphlet by Life Ministries in 2013 (second printing 2016).