Shortly after Jesus’ birth, an “angel of the Lord” suddenly appeared before some shepherds who were watching their flocks in fields near Bethlehem. An “angel of the Lord”—more helpfully translated an “angelos of Yahweh”—is a visible manifestation of God himself. The burning bush on Mt. Sinai was an angelos of Yahweh. So was the pillar of fire that led Israel through the wilderness. Presumably, the “man” who ate dinner with Abraham in his tent was an angelos of Yahweh. Throughout the history of Israel, the angelos of Yahweh appeared in many different forms.
Yahweh appeared to these shepherds in some visible form on that very remarkable night to announce the birth of their King. But He did not merely appear in visible form. In keeping with the magnificence of who He is, a bright physical light emanated from Him all around. It was so brilliant and intense that it illuminated the whole area. His bright, shining appearance terrified them. This was a truly glorious being before them.
The event must have been remarkable to witness. Imagine sitting in the field that night, gazing at the stars through the total darkness of their pre-Edison sky, when, suddenly, out of nowhere, a dazzling light appears, perhaps as bright as the sun itself. What a sight that must have been!
Now in that actual historical event, the glory of God’s angelos is seen against the blackness of the night sky. How much more striking was His glory, framed as it was by the night sky, than it would have been had it occurred in broad daylight. The angelos of Yahweh could be seen in all His resplendent glory precisely because He was seen against the backdrop of total darkness.
That is how we must come to appreciate the meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth as well. We will never understand the overwhelming joy of Jesus’ birth unless we understand the sorrow of human existence that he came into the world to address. Just as the shepherds could only see the true magnificence of God’s glorious appearance against the nighttime sky, so we can see the true joy of Christmas only in contrast to the darkness of human existence.
But what exactly is that darkness that enhances our understanding of the joy that Christmas brings? Death. Death is the absurd fact that provides the background necessary for understanding Christmas. Only by understanding the tragedy, the inescapability, and the irreversibility of death can we come to understand the joyous import of Jesus coming into existence.
The inescapability of death is indisputable; and, yet, it is notoriously ignored. Everybody dies. It is almost too trite to say so. There couldn’t be a more certain fact about human existence. And, yet, most of us avoid thinking about it in the way we live our lives. But we ignore the inevitability of death to our peril. We must face it squarely.
Not only is death inevitable, it is also irreversible. No one returns from death. When I die, I am gone. That’s what it means to die. To die is to cease to be a part of this reality. And no one who has ceased to be can pick up and return to being.
Nothing proves how deeply the irreversibility of death is ingrained in our knowledge and experience than the gospel accounts. Jesus instructed his disciples clearly and in detail what his future held for him. He would go to Jerusalem, get arrested, be scourged, mocked, and crucified. But, then, after three days in the grave, he would come back to life. A truly remarkable feature of the gospel accounts is that after Jesus did go to Jerusalem, after he did, in fact, get arrested, scourged, mocked, and crucified, not a single disciple gave even the slightest indication that he expected Jesus to return from the grave. Why not? Jesus had told them explicitly that his resurrection would be the next thing to occur. Everything else he had predicted had come to pass just as he said it would. Why did they not expect the resurrection that he had also predicted? The answer, I think, is evident. No one comes back from the grave. (They had witnessed Lazarus come back to life. But Lazarus did not return to life spontaneously. It was a miracle that occurred at the command of Jesus.) Any prediction to the contrary was a delusional fantasy. The crucifixion put an end to Jesus’ existence. He would be no more. Is that not what we all know? Do we not all understand—at the very foundation of our knowledge—that death is the final and irreversible end of life?
We also understand that death is horrible. It is not a beautiful part of the circle of life. It is a ghastly destroyer, the great nullifier. Death strips me of everything I am, everything I worked for, and everything I wanted. It nullifies absolutely everything. Wealth, power, fame, honor, integrity, character, identity—whatever it is, death cancels it out and reduces it to nothing. Only in delusional fantasies do I believe that I can “live on” through my work, my progeny, or my reputation.
That is why Jesus wept at Lazarus’s funeral. Because death is awful. It is the absurd fact that underlies all of human existence. So far as experience teaches us, we were born to die. We were born to be reduced to nothing. This is the great, intractable sorrow of mankind, the curse that hangs over the head of every human being. And it is the darkness against which the meaning of Christmas shines.
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the one in whom God demonstrated His power over death. As the author and creator of all reality, God restored the murdered Jesus to newness of Life—to an existence where he would not be subject to death ever again. In the person of Jesus, God proved Himself faithful to the longstanding promise He had made to Abraham—namely, the promise that Abraham and his children would not be destroyed by death, the promise of everlasting life instead. Before Jesus, no one had ever been granted that blessing. He was the first—the firstborn from the grave who has gone before us into everlasting life. But because God raised Jesus from the dead, we who belong to him can expect that we, too, in our time, will be raised up out of our graves.
Only when we face honestly the tragedy, irreversibility, and inevitability of death can we appreciate the significance of Jesus’ existence and understand the incredible joy that Christmas brings. Jesus’ resurrection declared the defeat of our enemy death. Jesus’ resurrection was the gateway to our hope of everlasting Life. Easter is what makes Christmas worth getting excited about. It is death that forms the dark background against which the glory of God’s gift to us, in and through Jesus, shines so brilliantly. When we ignore the reality of death, then Christmas becomes a secular celebration of shallow sentimentality, not a joyous celebration of God’s victory over mankind’s greatest enemy. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of the man of whom John wrote, “God loved the world in just this way: He sent us His utterly unique Son, to the end that whoever believes in this Son will never be defeated by the curse of death but rather will be granted everlasting life” [John 3:16, my translation].
So Christmas is not for kids. The true joy of Christmas can only be understood by the wisdom that comes with maturity. When we are young, we are typically inexperienced with death. It seems a distant abstraction, nothing to worry about. In childish folly, we occupy ourselves with the passing concerns of this world, with no regard for the reality of death. Wisdom begins when we face squarely into death’s inevitability. And only then can we understand the inexpressible joy of Jesus’ birth.
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus this year, may we wrap our minds completely around the significance of this man and what he did on our behalf. He made it possible for my life not to be nullified by death. If I but acknowledge him, I will live on. I will enjoy life forever in the eternal kingdom of God.