The Advent Season is all about preparing for Jesus’ coming. A great deal of anticipation and hope mark the season. Is the build-up worth it? Do all the great expectations find fulfillment on Christmas Day?
The answer depends on the expectations wrapped up in the question. Ironically perhaps to many, the New Testament does not wrap up all expectations for the Messiah in Jesus’ birth. In fact, only two of the four canonical gospels about Jesus’ life feature birth narratives (Matthew and Luke). Yet, all four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) feature passion, death and resurrection narratives. Moreover, the church fathers of the first two centuries did not place focus on Jesus’ birth or Christmas Day. According to Andrew McGowan,
The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225). Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time. As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.
Such lack of consideration should cause us to reconsider the amount of attention we award to Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day, or at least the way we attend to his advent (i.e., coming) into the world. The following statement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops helps orient our attention in the right direction:
Beginning the Church’s liturgical year, Advent (from, “ad-venire” in Latin or “to come to”) is the season encompassing the four Sundays (and weekdays) leading up to the celebration of Christmas.
The Advent season is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas. The final days of Advent, from December 17 to December 24, focus particularly on our preparation for the celebrations of the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas).
In keeping with this statement, our great expectations for Jesus should not find fulfillment on Christmas Day, but at his second coming to which the Advent season ultimately points. Such expectations must also involve Jesus’ aim in coming into the world to bring salvation. Matthew’s gospel account puts the matter succinctly in the angel’s announcement to Joseph that Mary will be the mother of the Messiah by the Holy Spirit: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21; ESV).
Salvation is the focus of the biblical narrative. So, we must guard against fixing our gaze solely or primarily on Jesus’ birth. Having said that, such focus should not be taken to suggest that the birth lacks significance. Indeed, it does matter greatly. As the Apostle Paul asserts,
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Galatians 4:4-7; ESV).
In keeping with Paul’s assertion, Jesus assumed our humanity in order to redeem us. Or as Gregory of Nazianzus would put it, “The unassumed is the unhealed.” For Gregory, “He has not assumed what he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101 – Letter to Cledonius).
So, what’s the big deal about Jesus’ birth? Only our salvation involving Jesus’ full humanity, and our full humanity, too. Jesus as the Christ could not have healed our humanity if he did not share in it fully from birth to death. There is no sense in the canonical gospels that the divine Christ adopts the man Jesus at his baptism, and then leaves him prior to his passion and death. No, Mary gives birth to the eternal Son of God (theotokos) who would die for the sins of the world (See John 1:29; 1 John 2:2). To repeat Paul’s words above, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman.” The same Spirit through whom Mary conceived Jesus enters our hearts (Galatians 4:4-7) so that we can become children of God and heirs. In the estimation of the New Testament community, only in this way could we become sons, daughters and heirs, no longer being slaves to sin.
So, if Paul’s and the canonical gospel writers’ perspectives and emphases shape your and my expectations for Christmas, then very good. However, if we expect and demand that we will experience ultimate bliss as we celebrate Jesus’ birth today, then we will be greatly disappointed and disillusioned. As a result, many are ready to throw out the baby with the dirty, distorted and deceptive expectations of joy free of sorrow, pain, and the struggle with sin. But God never made such promises to take away these burdens now. Rather, he promises to be with us so that he can bear these burdens with and for us (Matthew 1:23; Matthew 11:28-30) and, in the end, to bring ultimate redemption to us. In fact, Jesus’ birth in a manger under Rome’s oppressive rule and his early life under threat by Herod’s murderous pursuit should tell us that God does not promise to give us our best life now. After all, Advent does not simply point to Jesus’ first coming at his birth, which multitudes of Christians celebrate today, but also to his second coming at the close of history.
Today, we will open and watch people open presents. We will throw away torn wrapping paper and consider returning some of the gifts due to style or size. But don’t throw away or return the baby Jesus due to false or unfulfilled expectations. The best is yet to come (Galatians 4:4-7).