Monday, December 13, 2021

Born in Us

Thirty years ago on this date I was in Bethlehem. Our whole family lived just outside of Bethlehem for the fall semester while I studied at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. We could view the town of Bethlehem from the balcony of our apartment. Those were the days before a wall and a military checkpoint separated the West Bank from Israel. We used to walk freely into Bethlehem as a family regularly. I spent many hours at the Basilica of the Nativity, which is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.

For that reason I get a bit nostalgic whenever I sing the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The hymn was written in 1867 by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal pastor from Philadelphia. He had been in Israel two years earlier and had celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem. One phrase in the final stanza is particularly meaningful to me. It is a prayer to the Holy Child of Bethlehem to “be born in us today.” This is the meaning of Christmas.

Christmas is not just a birthday celebration. If that were the primary purpose of Christmas then the Bible would give a date for Jesus’ birth. It doesn’t. The mention of the Roman census does not help historians narrow it down. Christmas is not really about angels, shepherds, wise men, or a miraculous star in the East. These are symbolic elements meant to point the reader to a deeper spiritual reality.

They point to the truth that Christ is born in us. That is why the figure of Mary is so important in Luke’s nativity account. Christ was born in her. This is more than physical pregnancy. It is about spiritual pregnancy. It points to spiritual truth. Christ was born in her.  Christ is born in us. As the hymn says, “O Holy Child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.”

To use the theological term, Christmas is about incarnation. God enfleshed. God was in the human named Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus learned this himself at his baptism when he heard the heavenly voice calling him a beloved son. The apostle Paul extended it to us: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

Christmas is about the spiritual reality at the heart of human existence. It is about a spiritual transformation that can happen to all of us.

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.

It is about knowing our true nature as children of God. It is about claiming this birthright. Christmas is not just about a humble birth in the little town of Bethlehem two thousand years ago. It is about the birth of the eternal Christ in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this reminder. It will give new meaning to me when I too sing it.


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