Review of Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas, edited by Nancy Guthrie, and Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation, by Joel R. Beeke and William Boekestein
Confession: I am a Christmas addict. And I don’t mean that in a highbrow religious sense; I love those bits of Christmas that are so often derided as ‘crass’ and ‘commercial’. I love everything about it—gifts, decorations, cookies, cartoon ‘specials’, and Christmas movies, whether cheesy or legitimately awesome. I love the music—the more sacred ‘carol’ variety, the crooning classics, the rock covers, and even novelty songs featuring lost incisors, hippopotamuses, and the wacky hijinks of Santa and his various helpers and staff members (but not that ‘Christmas Shoes’ song; that song needs to die). I love evergreens and red ribbons and candles and handmade ornaments and wrapping paper and nativities and Christmas pageants and holiday china and stockings. I love the generosity and kindness that the season seems to bring out in people (though the season is not without its aggressive shoppers and selfish, entitled children). Families fill shoeboxes full of gifts for children overseas; churches amp up their food drives to ensure that the ‘have-nots’ in their communities still get Christmas dinner; even commercials on television tend to have a slightly more family-oriented focus (even if it’s just a ploy to move more product).
But as a Christian, I am aware that all this stuff—the tinsel, the presents, even the time with family—is not the point. Yet it’s incredibly easy to get so wrapped up in the trimmings than I functionally forget the substantive meaning for celebration. I bask in the glow of ‘peace on earth, goodwill to men’ and forget that the peace ushered in by the precious infant son of God was not first and foremost a peace among men, but a peace between God and the men who’d been warring against Him since the Garden of Eden. I forget that the miracle of Christmas is not just a virgin birth and an assortment of unusual gifts; it is the expression of love and goodwill from a perfectly holy and just God who made a way for vile, rebellious sinners to be reconciled to Him.
Because even for someone who, left to her own devices, would start listening to Christmas music in October, Christmas has a way of sneaking up on you. So many times, I’ve woken up on Christmas Day and found myself smack in the middle of the celebration of a phenomenon of mind-shattering magnitude, without having devoted any time or energy to the contemplation of that phenomenon.
And what a phenomenon it is. C.S. Lewis describes it this way:
[T]he Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature with Him. (“The Grand Miracle”, from God in the Dock)
It’s easy to forget just how big a miracle this is. We think being born of a virgin is a miracle on par with walking on water or healing the blind or multiplying meager provisions. And yeah, the God who can do all those things could stick a baby in a virgin womb without batting an eye. But the nature of the baby is a miracle on an altogether different scale. Fully God, yet fully man? How is that even possible? As Lewis notes, ‘In what sense is it conceivable that the eternal self-existent Spirit, basic Fact-hood, should be so combined with a natural human organism as to make one person?’ (“The Grand Miracle”, from Miracles)
In his excellent Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton comments on the miraculous:
[Y]ou can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. […] We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five. (“The Ethics of Elfland”, from Orthodoxy)
Most of the miracles of Christianity fall into the ‘fairyland’ category—things we can imagine. We can imagine the Red Sea parting, the walls of Jericho crumbling. We can imagine water gushing from a rock, or manna falling from heaven. We can imagine birds feeding a prophet, or a jug of oil that never runs dry. We can imagine the blind seeing, the lame walking, the dead being raised. Water turning to wine, bread and fish multiplied … these are all within the realm of human imagination. They are analogous to Chesterton’s beanstalk to heaven. They don’t happen much, but we can imagine them.
The Incarnation, though, strikes me more as a ‘how many beans make five’ sort of miracle. We simply cannot get our brains around it. Two natures, one person. God, man. Infinite, finite. ‘A’ and ‘not A’. It just does not compute. We only know about it because we are told the mere fact of it in Scripture. And even then, it’s not really explained. The sum total of our knowledge is that Jesus is both ‘A’ (God) and ‘not A’ (Man). That’s it. We don’t know what that really looks like, or how it works. It doesn’t make a lick of sense to our human brains. But we see the fact of it in Scripture, and by the grace of God, we believe it. And once we do, the other pieces of the salvation story fall into place.
J.I. Packer explains it thus:
[The Incarnation] is the real stumbling block in Christianity. It is here that Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many of those who feel the difficulties concerning the virgin birth, the miracles, the atonement and the resurrection have come to grief. [...] But once the Incarnation is grasped as a reality, these other difficulties dissolve.
If Jesus had been no more than a very remarkable, godly man, the difficulties in believing what the New Testament tells us about his life and work would be truly mountainous. […] It is not strange that he, Author of life, should rise from the dead. If he was truly God the Son, it is much more startling that he should die than that he should rise again.
[...] And if the immortal Son of God did really submit to taste death, it is not strange that such a death should have saving significance for a doomed race. Once we grant that Jesus was divine, it becomes unreasonable to find difficulty in any of this; it is all of a piece and hangs together completely. The Incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains. (“God Incarnate”, from Knowing God)
It is this Miracle (with a capital ‘M’) that we celebrate each December. So in an effort to focus my Christmas-crazed mind on the true wonder of this incredible holiday, I’ve sought to observe—or celebrate, if that’s the right word—the season of Advent. In particular, I’ve benefitted from good Advent devotionals (which are harder to find than you might think). This Advent, I would like to commend to you two such devotionals: Why Christ Came, by Joel Beeke and William Boekestein, and Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, edited by Nancy Guthrie.
If you or someone you know is, shall we say, less enthused about the trappings of Christmas, Why Christ Came is an excellent Advent resource. In a series of 31 short (2-3 page) meditations, the authors explore 31 different reasons, well, why Christ came. This book essentially sidesteps the Christmas narrative (I don’t think shepherds or wise men are mentioned once), focusing instead on the theological implications of the Incarnation. We are reminded that Christ came to do the will of the Father (that is, to life a perfect obedient life in our place), to save sinners, to be a merciful and faithful high priest, to be a second Adam, to die, to effect our adoption, and to reveal God’s glory, among other reasons. These gospel-oriented meditations are a fantastic way to contemplate the wonder of the Incarnation. The writing is nothing special—straightforward and to the point—but the substance is excellent. The passages are short enough to be easily incorporated into family devotions or even read aloud.
For those of you who view the Christmas narrative with more enthusiasm, you’d be hard pressed to do better than Nancy Guthrie’s Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus. Guthrie, herself frustrated by the lack of substantively meaty Advent resources available, set about the task of gleaning Advent material from the writings of others. Her collection of 22 passages includes writings by George Whitefield, John Piper, Martin Luther, Tim Keller, Jonathan Edwards, Ligon Duncan, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J.I. Packer, Charles Spurgeon, John MacArthur, John Calvin, R.C. Sproul, Saint Augustine, and Francis Schaeffer. Not exactly a list of spiritual lightweights. The passages range from 3 to 10 pages in length, and are arranged roughly in the chronological order according to the portion of the Christmas narrative discussed. Because of the greater variety in length, these meditations may be harder to work into family devotions or to read aloud. However, they are substantively excellent (and extremely well-written—pretty much all these folks are known to be good writers), and skillfully cull insightful gospel reflections from the well-worn elements of the Christmas story.
However you observe Advent (or don’t, if you’re adamantly non-liturgical) I hope and pray that you will take some time to contemplate the wonder of Christmas—not just as a series of crazy miracles or a familiar story, but as the incredible and miraculous Incarnation of the One True God, born to die in our place, so that we might have eternal life with Him. Joy to the World, indeed.
Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.