The most deeply sublime element of Christmas, the great irony that moves so many to faith, is the appearance of God as a baby in a manger. There is something incongruous about the omnipotent Creator appearing as a helpless child. It seems so odd, many immediately doubt that it could be so, yet it is precisely this element that draws so many to Christmas. It reminds us of when God came near.
Most religions present their God or gods as great conquerors or all-powerful beings who help their followers to achieve victory. This is as true in modern religions as it is the ancient mythology of the Norse or Greeks. People shout “God is great” because they cannot see Him as anything other than a conqueror. Christianity has always been different. While Christians recognize God is Almighty, they believe that God became Incarnate to save us from our sins. He was born as a frail human being (Jesus Christ), who, though divine, appeared in a shell that was mortal, weak, limited to time and space, and even a little sad at times. This was the Emmanuel mentioned by the prophet Isaiah – Emmanuel means “God came near.” It is this and not merely the birth of a holy prophet or wise teacher that Christmas originally celebrated.
The theological term for what Jesus went through to be born on earth is kenosis, a Greek word meaning literally “to empty self.” This was the word Paul used in Philippians 2:7 to describe how Jesus “made himself nothing” or emptied himself of divinity to become a man. In short, although Jesus was divine, He shed divinity to become mortal. Although immortal, He shed eternal life to die as a man. Although the ruler of the heavens, He shed being a king to become a peasant. Although worthy of all honor, He shed majesty to become ordinary. Although all-powerful, He shed omnipotence to become obedient. He did this, not because He was unable to access His power, which He did to work miracles or speak truth, but because He humbled Himself to live and learn as a man that He might be near to us. He submitted Himself to humanity and death that He might die to save us.
Nothing better represents the transition of kenosis than the baby in the manger. It is as far from a powerful God as you can get. A baby is wholly dependent on others, soft, weak, and easily injured. A baby has no personality, no majesty, no wisdom, no power to influence or to change. A baby cannot be a teacher, lead armies, or work miracles. Despite this, the shepherds and wise men still came to worship Christ as a baby. The reason is clear – before Christ did a thing, they recognized the divinity in Him, a veiled power and majesty, a vibrant life that seemed out of place in a baby. Long before Jesus taught wisdom, worked miracles, or led people to believe, they were worshipping Him. It was not because of anything that Jesus did that they praised Him, but only because of He was the Immanuel. Though Christ emptied Himself of divinity to become a man, He remained the incarnate Son, who would grow and become wise, powerful, and majestic, even in death.
At the same time, Christianity also teaches that believers also go through a kenosis. This is when we empty ourselves of selfishness and sin to assume a holy and divine life. Jesus described this process as carrying our cross daily – a phrase that implies a slow death. Paul likewise spoke of dying to self that Christ might live in us. He emptied Himself of heaven and came to earth that we might empty ourselves of earth to go to heaven. Thus, we empty ourselves of death to assume His life. We empty ourselves of foolishness to gain His wisdom. We empty ourselves of independence to become dependent on Him. We empty ourselves of ordinariness to become precious to Him. Then we will become as a little babe that we might draw near to Him.
The magic of Christmas is that God drew near to us. He emptied Himself of divinity that He might dwell among us and help us. In return, we empty ourselves of sinful mortality to partake of His life. He drew near to us that we might draw near to Him. As we draw near to Him, He promises to draw near to us, like an eternal cycle. It all started with the wonder of Christmas, when God came near.
© 2022 J.D. Manders