Well, the holiday season is already upon us again. Christmas music is playing in the stores. Christmas trees are lit up and on full display. And manger scenes are starting to show up all over the place. The beautiful nativity in town is up and will be all aglow soon. Several will be found in many yards and on mantles in people’s homes. And while I am so thankful for all of the emphasis on the manger this time of year, I think that we need to be careful not to limit our focus to just the picture of the baby sleeping on the straw surrounded by the animals. If we do, there is a danger that our celebration of Christmas will be incomplete. Because we should not celebrate the manger without the cross. Not divorce the joy of the birth of the baby from Who He is and what He came to do.
One thing we notice in Scripture is that the nativity is never presented to us as an isolated event but is always connected to the cross. It is never just about the birth of the Messiah. For instance, in her song following the announcement that she had been chosen to bear the Christ child, Mary exclaims that God "has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy" according to the promise that God made to their ancestors (Luke 1:54-55). That "help" ultimately being in the sense of salvation. Zacharias, right after the birth of his son, John the Baptist, acknowledges that with the coming of the One whom his son had been designed to point to, God "has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant" (Luke 1:68-69). The name "Jesus" itself speaks of the reason for the child's birth which finds its fulfillment in His death on the cross. As the angel Gabriel told Joseph in the dream, "you shall call His name Jesus, FOR HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS" (Matthew 1:21). The shepherds were specifically told that the One who had been born that very night was "a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). And the old man, Simeon, who sees the baby Jesus in the temple, recognizes that in laying his eyes upon Him that he is looking at the very One who will accomplish salvation for God's people (Luke 2:30). An accomplishment we know that will occur through His death and resurrection which Simeon indicates with him prophetically telling Mary that "a sword will pierce her own soul to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed" (v. 35). What greater sword could pierce a mother's soul than watching her son being brutally and painfully crucified? Interestingly enough, one of the gifts of the Magi was myrrh which was often used in embalming and symbolized bitterness, suffering, and affliction. Again, connecting us to His crucifixion where He would suffer and die for the salvation of His people.
We must always remember that the very reason God the Son came to earth and was born as a baby was to serve as our substitute. To live the perfect obedient life that we have failed to live and to die the death that we deserved for our sins on the cross in our place. He took on flesh so that He could live for us and die for us. He needed hands and feet for them to be pierced through. A back to be whipped. A head for a crown of thorns to be placed upon it. Breath so that He could breathe His last. As the author of Hebrews puts it, "Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (2:17). There is a real sense where we could say with John Piper that Christmas was preparation for Good Friday. Jesus' lowly birth in that manger was necessary for His later agonizing death on the cross. Without it, He could never have died to experience God's wrath in our place. And we would do well to keep that in mind every time we see a nativity scene. The song by the Southern Gospel group, The Ball Brothers, conveys this so well. "It's not just about the manger / Where the baby lay / It's not all about the angels / Who sing for him that day / It's not all about the shepherds / Or the bright and shining star / It's not all about the wise men / Who travelled from afar / It's about the cross / It's about my sin / It's about how Jesus came to be born once / So that we could be born again / It's about the stone / That was rolled away / So that you and I could have real life someday / It's about the cross."
So, be sure to have a complete celebration of Christmas this year. To view the manger in light of the cross, never losing sight as to the significant reason as to why this baby was born. As the Ball Brothers sing in their song, "The beginning of the story / Is wonderful and great / But it's the ending that can save you / And that's why we celebrate."
Love in Christ,