From Explanations to Atonement
Nephi sees the baby Jesus and immediately knows what the tree in Lehi's dream means: "It is the love of God." The birth of Christ is not merely a philosophical or religious idea that we must grasp rationally or through meditation, though both of those can be important aids to our spiritual life. The birth of the Savior is a concrete event through which the Godhead shows their love to human beings. Because the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost love us, they are willing that the Son should live a life like we live.
Jesus, born in a stall in Bethlehem, to a young woman probably despised by her neighbors, raised in a small town of no particular worth or significance, a carpenter's apprentice and then himself a carpenter rather than someone of high position in society, with (as Isaiah reminds us) "no form nor comeliness; and . . . no beauty that we should desire him" (Is. 53:2)—this Jesus is the physical and temporal sign that the enemies of Israel, the enemies of the children of God, cannot overcome God's work. He is that sign because he was born as a human baby and lived a human life.
God himself comes in the most lowly of circumstances and he overcomes not only those circumstances but sin and death themselves, so that we too can overcome them through him. He is the sign that though we may suffer in both body and spirit, we need not lose hope of victory.
But what kind of victory do we hope for? Our enemy, Satan, shows himself in two forms: death and sin. To overcome both, Christ came in the flesh, as a baby subject to the dangers and difficulties that we ourselves face. He overcame death with the resurrection, impossible had he not been born and lived as we live. He overcame sin through his bodily suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross, without which we would be unable to repent. Resurrection and the overcoming of sin required that he be one of us. Both his works required his bodily existence.
That is among the reasons that we covenant always to remember him when we take the elements of the Lord's Supper. We remember that he, like us, had a body of flesh and blood; that he, like us, suffered pain and torment; that he, like us, died. And we remember that he has made our resurrection and our repentance and return possible because he came in a body like ours.
Surely those who ultimately receive life in the presence of the Father have the least pain possible. But the point of receiving that blessing is not the minimization of our suffering. After all, Christ was already exalted, yet his suffering was maximized.
The point of exaltation is life with our Father, the same life as our Father. The point of the atonement is to make that life possible for us, making it possible for us to be one with the Father in the life that he leads. He has overcome death and sin, but he has not found a way beyond all pain. Hope for a life without pain is a hope for a life cut off from relationships with other persons. It is a hope for something other than divine life.
The life of atonement is a great blessing, but it isn't one that we must merely await. A life of atonement can be granted to us in this life. It is the life promised to those who repent of their sins, are baptized, and receive the Holy Ghost. But a life of atonement, in which I am one with the Godhead in their work against sin and death, is not a life guaranteed to be free of suffering.
God promises the highest form of life possible for a human being, the highest happiness possible. But the life promised is adult life, a life that includes and responds to the pain caused by the wrong choices of others and the pains suffered by others. I am promised a life like God's, and his life includes pain and suffering because it responds to pain and suffering. God does not promise us a fairy-tale life where nothing can go wrong for anyone ever. There is no such life in this world, nor in the world to come.
At Christmas time, we memorialize our hope for adult life with God by remembering the Son's birth as a child, as one of us. We sorrow with those who sorrow and mourn with those who mourn, and we celebrate the birth into physical mortality, with its sorrow and mourning, of Jesus, the Son of God.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.