The Greatest Thing About Christmas
It has been said that the three earliest Christmas carols were these: first, the magnificat, the song of Mary after she had been told by the angel Gabriel that she was to bear the Son of God; second, the Gloria In Excelsis, the song the angels sang over Bethlehem’s fields on the night the Saviour was born; and third, the song from Paul’s letter to the Philippians which I have just read in your hearing.
Scholars are agreed that it is a song—whether it was written by Paul or was used in the church and simply quoted by Paul, we are not certain—but that it is a song is quite clear. It is a brief song, but a lovely one. It is a simple song, but a marvelously profound one. For in the verses of this song Paul traces the life of Jesus from before His coming until after His ascension.
Whenever I think of this song from Philippians, I am reminded of the earliest work of art which we have from the hand of Michelangelo. It is a “flattened relief” sculpture called “The Madonna of the Stairs.” In the carving, Mary is depicted with the infant Jesus asleep in her lap. Behind her are a set of stairs with a railing and several children playing on the stairs. Two of the children are holding a large cloth. This work of art is remarkable for two reasons. In the first place, it is remarkable that such a magnificent thing should come from an artist not yet sixteen years old. And it is remarkable, also, because in one carving Michelangelo has told two stories. He speaks plainly of the birth of Christ by portraying the infant Jesus in His mother’s lap. But there is another story told in the background. When you look closely you see that the stairs and the railing and the upper floor are carved in such a way that they form a cross. And the two children carrying the large cloth are carrying it in such a way that it looks like a shroud. In a single carving, we see the coming, “the borning,” and the going, “the dying,” of our Lord and Saviour.
What Michelangelo did in that stone, the Apostle Paul did in this song. In just a handful of words, he gives us a complete picture of who and what Jesus really is. I’ll show you what I mean…
In Philippians 2:6, Paul writes that our Lord Jesus “who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…”
Now the word “form” is a unique word. This passage is the only place in all of the Bible where that particular word appears, and it appears in this passage three times: The word means “essential oneness.” If I were to hold before you a cluster of flowers, including a rose, a poinsettia, a tulip, and a chrysanthemum, you would identify them all as flowers. They would appear to be different—they would be different in color and shape and texture—but you would label them all “flowers.” They would have about them an “essential oneness,” and “essential flowerness,” a basic unity, an identifiable form. Paul says, that Jesus Christ possessed this basic, essential unity with the Heavenly Father. They were one. They were of the same form. They may have appeared to be different, but their essence was the same.
Jesus said it Himself. Hang on tight and listen to His words. John 8:19—”If you knew me, you would know My Father also.” John 10:30—”I and the Father are one.” John 12:45—”Anyone who sees Me sees the Father who sent me.” John 13:20—”Whoever receives me receives the One who sent Me.” John 14:1—”Believe in God, believe also in Me.” John 14:9—”He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”
That’s what Paul was driving at here. He tells us how high Christ is so that we might be all the more touched by how far He stooped. Paul shows us a cosmic Christ—a Christ who existed before the foundation of the world—a Christ who brought all of creation into being before the dawn of time, a Christ who was and is and always will be at one with the Father in heaven, a Christ who is “very God of very God.”
I do not know what your idea of God may be, how you would describe Him. But I do know this: if you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus. He “was in the form of God.” In their essence, they are one and the same.
Then in Philippians 2:7, Paul writes that Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
The key word here is the word “emptied.” In other words, Jesus laid aside all the power and authority and glory of the spiritual life of heaven and took upon Himself all the limitations of human flesh. Paul tells us that Jesus did not count His equality with God something to be grasped and held onto at all costs. Rather, out of love for us, He emptied Himself and took the form—ah, there’s that same word as earlier—He took the form, the essential nature of a human being. He didn’t just look like a man; He was a man; He came from the mansions of eternity to a stable manger. He laid aside the royalty of heaven for the comparative rags of this earth. He was the Crown Jewel of God’s kingdom resting in a nest of hay.
We must not idealize that. The stable was a cave. The manger was the animals’ feeding trough. The place was filled with barnyard smells. The only ones there to see it all were the beasts of the fields. Mary probably brought her own Son into the world. There is no record of anyone else being there save Joseph, and Joseph would have been prevented by law from being present at the moment of birth. Only after the tiny, red, and wrinkled baby began to cry with new life would Joseph have entered the scene, to take the baby into his arms, and wrap the child in that coarse piece of cloth called “swaddling clothes,” to ward off the damp coldness of the cave at night.
It’s hard for us to understand that. God, with all the power of eternity in His hands, chose to come to us as a tiny, helpless, stable-born child. But Paul doesn’t ask us to understand it. He asks us only to accept it.
Next in Philippians 2:8, Paul writes that Jesus “being found in human form, humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
Here the shadow of Calvary falls across Bethlehem. And why should it not? You can travel from Calvary to Bethlehem in just 20 minutes on a bus. Paul is saying to us what Michelangelo said through his sculpture, that the borning and the dying were not far apart, in distance or in years.
He died on a cross. The ultimate humiliation. Paul’s fellow citizen, Cicero, said of crucifixion that it was so hideous a horror that he simply could not describe it. Oh, I know, that bringing thoughts of the cross and the dying of our Saviour into the beauty of the Christmas season somehow seems discomforting and inappropriate. We want the liquid loveliness of it all to come to us without the staining taint of human history and human sin. But Paul won’t let us duck. He reminds us that Christmas is not only Bethlehem—it is also Golgotha. It’s not only a manger—it’s also a cross. Paul knows that any faith which hopes to stand must be a faith which meets the barbarity of humanity and the callousness of life head-on. That’s what Jesus did.
In the “Peanuts” cartoon, Linus and Charlie Brown were looking up at a bright, starry sky. Charlie Brown says:. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Linus says: “Yes.” Charlie Brown says: “Would you like to see a falling star?” Linus replies: “Yes, I would…but on second thought I wouldn’t want anyone to go to all that trouble just for me.”
But the Gospel message of Paul’s song is that Jesus, our Bright and Morning Star, fell from heaven for each one of us. He humbled Himself unto death, even death on a cross, just for you and just for me.
Now in Philippians 2:9-10, Paul writes that God has exalted Jesus and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Paul uses a word here to describe Jesus which he uses only four other times in all of his letters. It is the word “Lord”. It is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe God Himself. Get the picture, please. Christ, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, becomes finite, suffers and dies—and then is exalted again so that the whole world is under His power. He is Lord. He is God. It’s an incredible affirmation. And it has proved to be true.
Hans Kung, the great Roman Catholic Theologian, tells us that in 41 B.C. Vergil predicted that soon the saviour of the world would be born. He was referring to Octavius, the nephew of Julius Caesar. When Octavius took the throne of the Roman Empire in 29 B.C., he ordered all the temples closed and declared himself to be “The child of the divine one, the son of god.” Later, he ordered notices sent out to the empire, setting aside his birthday as a holy day and the notice was entitled “Euangelong”, which means “The gospel, the good news.” He claimed that he alone would bring peace to the earth and he demanded that his subjects address him as “my lord.”
The early writers of Scripture took up that challenge and called Jesus Christ the only Son of God. They declared that His story was the only Gospel. The words were not casually chosen. They were setting all the gentle, emptying, sacrificial love of God over against the power and might of Caesar. They were saying that God’s ways, no matter how frail and subtle, and silent they may seem, that ultimately, God’s ways will prevail. They believed that the day would come when every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
And that is true. For today prophets preach Christ, not Caesar. Priests lift prayers in the name of Christ, not Caesar. Healers make bodies and minds whole in the name of Christ, not in the name of Caesar. Prisoners beg for mercy in the name of Christ, not Caesar. Presidents take the oath of office with their hands on the Bible, not the Roman Code of Law. We name our children Peter and Paul, and our dogs Caesar and Nero. This is the victory of love. This is the victory which belongs to those who claim Jesus Christ as Lord.
Nicholas understood that. He was born in 280 A.D. in a small town in Asia Minor called Pittara. He lost his parents early to an epidemic, but not before they had planted deep within him the gift of faith. Then little Nicholas was moved to Myra, a city in what we know today as Turkey. There Nicholas proceeded to live a life so full of the giving, loving, sacrificing, emptying spirit of Jesus that when the town needed a bishop, they elected Nicholas, though at the time he was hardly more than a teenager. The day came when he was imprisoned for his faith by the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. They tried to destroy his faith by torture. It didn’t work. Finally, years later, he was released from prison by the Emperor Constantine. He returned to his self-giving, self-emptying work in the name of Christ. Stories began to spread far and wide of his generosity—how he would gather food to feed those who were starving, how he would give girls money so that they would have a dowry in order to get a husband, and how he would frequently don a disguise and go out to give gifts to poor children. Ultimately, he gave away everything he had and everything he could get from others. In 341, he died. Later, his body was moved to Italy. His remains are there still. But the story of Nicholas has spread around the world. There are more churches named after him than any other person in the history of the church. We know him as St. Nicholas. Oh, other people have done things to him. The poet, Clement Moore, gave him a cherry nose and eight tiny reindeer. The cartoonist, Thomas Nast, made him big and fat, wearing a red coat with white fur. Others have given him different names: Pelz Nichol, Kris Kringle, Santa Claus. But what’s important about him is that he claimed Jesus Christ as Lord. And because, like Jesus, he lived a gentle, self-offering, emptying life of love, he touched the whole world.
The greatest thing about Christmas isn’t Santa Claus, though he brings happiness to children. And the greatest thing about Christmas isn’t even St. Nicholas, though he lived an extraordinarily loving and giving life. No, the greatest thing about Christmas is the One who was in the form of God, the One who emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, the One who humbled Himself even to death on a cross for you and for me, the One who is now exalted in the heavens and rules over all the earth. The greatest thing about Christmas is Christ—Jesus Christ—my Lord and my God—your Lord and your God—our Lord and our God.