Keep the X in Xmas!

It’s been said “Xmas” is a seasonally attempt by subversive secularists to kick Christ out of Christmas. I don’t doubt that is the intent of some folks. But the reality is the Greek spelling of the name Christ starts with an X (Χριστός).

In fact, the early Church often referred to Christ simply by his first Greek initial (X), or more commonly by overlapping his first two initials (XP). The simple cross (X) of course carried double meaning for those early Christians, and for us today.

So in that sense there’s not only a Christ in Xmas but also a Calvary. Far from a secularist attack, “Xmas” reminds us of Christ, his birth, and his cross, all at once.

The Meaning of Christmas: Comparing Dickens and Handel

The past week has been full of memories for me and my family. On Sunday afternoon we traveled to the Navy Academy chapel in Annapolis to hear Handel’s Messiah performed. The chapel is stunning and the performance was beautiful. On Wednesday night we traveled to D.C. to Ford’s Theater to see a performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ford’s is very small and intimate and the play was incredibly well acted. The empty president’s box elevated above the stage is a reminder that lends further eeriness to Dickens’ haunted intentions.

Both experiences will live long in my memory.

But while I was sitting in Ford’s theater I was struck by the contrasting Christmas messages between Dickens and Handel.

I’ll begin with Dickens.

Dickens

For Dickens, Christmas is about getting unshackled from materialism to appreciate all the blessed relationships we’ve been given. That’s a very good message. And in my attempt to further discover Dickens’ understanding of the meaning of Christmas, I was led to his short book, The Life of Our Lord. He wrote it not primarily to be published but to be read by his children each Christmas, thus giving us a glimpse into the urgency of its annual, seasonal message. The book is Dickens’ retelling of Christ’s birth, life, death on the cross, and resurrection. And quite frankly, most of it is very good.

Yet here is the final paragraph of the book, the punch line, the meaning of Christmas – the meaning of the cross and all of Christianity – in summary:

Remember! — It is Christianity To Do Good always — even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace.

For Dickens, the value of Christmas, and the Savior’s life and work it appears to me, is its ability to produce in us moral reform, enabling us to becoming better, do better, and ultimately to appease God, pleasing him with our moral reforms and effecting his forgiveness for our sins so that we can die in peace. You can hear all these theological assumptions echoing in A Christmas Carol, even into the final paragraph where we are assured that Scrooge “lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards.” Personal reform was the main point.

Handel

Then there is Handel’s Messiah. Here are some selected lyrics, which are passages drawn directly from the KJV Bible. Hardly any commentary is needed:

Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. [John 1:29]

He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. [Isaiah 53:3, 50:6]

Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. And with His stripes we are healed. [Isaiah 53:4-5]

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53:6]

He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of Thy people was He stricken. [Isaiah 53:8]

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body yet, in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep. [Job 19:25 and 1 Corinthians 15:20]

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. [1 Corinthians 15:21]

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. [1 Corinthians 15:22]

O death, where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]

If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea, rather that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us. [Romans 8:31-34]

And then it all closes with this magnificent scene of eternal, angelic worship:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen. [Revelation 5:12-14]

So beautiful!

I’m grateful Handel closed with yet another reference to the finished work of Christ. His entire message is soaked with the substitutionary blood of Christ. Jesus was born to die in our place, and died to be raised from the dead, and was raised to guarantee our bodily resurrection. In Handel’s work our eternal hope gets firmly placed on the shoulders of the Christ-child born in Bethlehem. Messiah is a magnificent work.

Contrast

I don’t know much about the life of Dickens, but clearly he was no mere deist. He pressed his children to see the importance of Christ’s incarnation, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and even the persecution of the early church. He seems to have a high regard for Scripture, and for this I am thankful. But it also seems that he boils down the meaning of Christmas to say little more than that Christ is our moral pattern to help us live Christianly.

By contrast, for Handel, the birth of the Savior marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. As that eternal plan begins to unfold on earth, Christ must be born, he must die a bloody death, and he must defeat the grave because we are desperate and helpless sinners. The entire salvific purposes of God begin to unfold in the Incarnation, in the birth of Christ.

For Dickens, Christmas is a reminder that we are all Scrooges, self-centered ungrateful nobs who yet have some hope of appeasing God through our personal reform.

For Handel, Christmas reminds us that we are all sinners, we are “in Adam,” and for that we are helpless to stop God’s righteous judgment towards our sin. Yet there is One who has paid the price to quench God’s wrath on our behalf.

In both A Christmas Carol and Messiah, all our warm and tranquil Hallmark Christmas sentimentality gets blasted by cold reality. Death is coming for us all, and the grave is approaching quickly.

Dickens wants people to die in peace.

Handel wants people raised from the dead.

Dickens’ hope is rooted in the future — in the finished work of moral reform necessary in our lives.

Handel’s hope is rooted in the past — the full and complete work of Christ on our behalf.

Dickens’ message is “do.”

Handel’s message is “done.”

Dickens’ work is good for what it is, a seasonal, warmhearted morality tale. For that I find it agreeable and commendable. But Handel’s work comprehends the scope of the hope-giving and guilt-freeing meaning of Christmas. For that I find eternal comfort, and hope for my ongoing battle against my inner self-centered, thankless Scrooge.

Christmas Cheer and Mounting Bills

One Thursday evening in late December, 1876, Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon on the comforting words of the Psalmist, “I flee unto thee to hide me” (Ps. 143:9). Near the end of his message he said this:

Suppose that twenty troubles should come to us in a day, and that we should flee unto God twenty times with them, I think that was might almost pray to God to send twenty troubles more, so that we might flee unto him forty times a day. Any reason for going to God must be a blessing to us, for going to God is going to bliss; so we may even turn our troubles into blessings by making them drive us unto him.

Have you been worrying yourself, since you have been here [in the service], about a trial that you expect to fall upon you towards the close of this year! You fear that Christmas is not likely to be “a merry Christmas” to you; there are many bills coming in, and not much hope of the money with which to meet them; well, then, flee unto God with that trouble; and whatever is burdening your heart or your mind, flee unto God about it, and leave it all in his hands, and go on your way rejoicing.

Did Jesus Get The Flu?

This is the great season when we celebrate the Savior’s incarnation. Which also means it’s that time of the year when strange things are afoot—fruitcake, tensile, and questions about whether Jesus suffered from bed head, used the restroom, or vomited because he had a case of the flu.

Given the striking humanity of the Savior, it is easy to just assume that Jesus must have experienced the stomach virus and vomiting, just like we have experienced. However the question is a bit more complex.

This is one question addressed a long time ago in the book On the Incarnation by Athanasius (c. 293–373). It’s a section worth a more careful look.

Did Jesus get the flu?

Athanasius says no.

Here’s his argument (pages 50–51).

First, he argues that all men who die of ‘natural causes,’ die from some form of illness.

The death of men under ordinary circumstances is the result of their natural weakness. They are essentially impermanent, so after a time they fall ill and when worn out they die.

Yet, in contrast, Jesus died in full strength.

But the Lord is not like that. He is not weak, He is the Power of God and Word of God and Very Life Itself. If He had died quietly in His bed like other men it would have looked as if He did so in accordance with His nature, and as though He was indeed no more than other men. But because He was Himself Word and Life and Power His body was made strong, and because the death had to be accomplished, He took the occasion of perfecting His sacrifice not from Himself, but from others.

Here’s the logic: If Jesus was prone to sickness then he was also prone to natural death. So why not let his 80 years play out and then Jesus could just die quietly in a bed as the Savior? Seems more appealing than the crucifixion. But,

How could He fall sick, Who had healed others? Or how could that body weaken and fail by means of which others are made strong? Here, again, you may say, “Why did He not prevent death, as He did sickness?” Because it was precisely in order to be able to die that He had taken a body, and to prevent the death would have been to impede the resurrection.

Ah, but didn’t Jesus feed the hungry and himself become hungry? Yes, but …

And as to the unsuitability of sickness for His body, as arguing weakness, you may say, “Did He then not hunger?” Yes, He hungered, because that was the property of His body, but He did not die of hunger, because He Whose body hungered was the Lord. Similarly, though He died to ransom all, He did not see corruption. His body rose in perfect soundness, for it was the body of none other than the Life Himself.

Hunger is not a result of the fall—but sickness is. Hunger was born in the stomach of Adam and a garden of delightful food. However, sickness is the birth pang of death. Sickness is an enemy we battle until at some point we become too weak to fight any longer and we succumb to physical death.

In all this, it seems to me that Athanasius was really attempting to preserve the crucifixion. Jesus did not incarnate to waste away by sickness. Instead, Christ maintained his health and strength. To Athanasius, this is what makes the cross so amazing. His strength sets the stage for his crucifixion. It was in the vigor of his remaining strength that allowed him to yell that Jesus gave up his own life (Matthew 27:46, 50). Jesus did not waste away.

So if I understand correctly, here’s his point: The Incarnate Savior was not a dying man, who at some point in his descent towards natural death, determined to die for sinners. Rather, in fullness of human strength, Jesus freely gave his life as a ransom. This is what’s at stake for Athanasius. Jesus never would have died from old age because he did not get sick. Thus, the atonement could never be accomplished through a “natural” death. The question over whether Christ ever got the flu was inseparable from a discussion about the Savior’s cause of death.

Did Jesus ever vomit because he had the flu? Athanasius says no; the crucifixion prevents it. Some say yes; the incarnation assumes it. But of course the simple fact is that Scripture doesn’t tell us, and that is the strongest evidence that should really settle the whole matter in the end.

The Word Became Skin, Muscle, Fat

John 1:14:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

David J. MacLeod writes [BibSac 161 (2004), 74–75]:

The words ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο (“the Word became flesh”) are unambiguous, almost shocking. Σάρξ (“flesh”) can speak of the soft parts of the body (skin, muscle, fat) as opposed to blood and bones.

Literally interpreted, flesh/σάρξ is the material that covers the human skeleton [BDAG]. Hence, the Word became skin, muscle, and fat.

We are quite familiar with this life of flesh. We want our skin to be clean, our muscles to be toned, and our fat to be minimized. When we think of humanness, we think primarily of these three things. It was this life of “fleshiness”—of skin, muscle, and fat—that the Savior assumed.

Taking for granted that we affirm the divinity of the Word (Jesus is God), the humanness of the incarnation is simply stunning.

The Meaning of Christmas

Hebrews 2:14-18:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.