It’s that time of year again: Christmas, the shepherds, the baby Jesus in the stall, angelic visitors with “good news,” and of course holly, ivy, eggnog and Santa.
No, I am not about to start a diatribe against the sentimentalizing of Christmas. I’m actually all for it – it’s religion that ruins Christmas. I’m all for mince pies and Yule logs so long as we don’t attach any religious significance to any of it! We try, of course (unsuccessfully), to insist that “Jesus is the real meaning of Christmas,” but the truth is that much of the paraphernalia we now associate with December 25 has nothing to do with Jesus; nor should it.
But I said I wasn’t going to begin my anti-Christmas diatribe; and I won’t. Instead, I want us to think about Bethlehem and the birth of the baby Jesus. It is, after all, one of the greatest mysterious we ever encounter: “God contracted to a span” as Wesley put it in one of his hymns (a “span” is the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, i.e. the size of an infant).
The attempt to formulate in human language what happened at Bethlehem brought about one of greatest church councils ever witnessed – the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). The Chalcedonian Creed is profound and precise, stretching language to breaking point as it attempts to find a way through competing errors about what the incarnation of Jesus Christ actually means. Having already affirmed the full deity of Jesus a century and a quarter earlier (at Nicea A.D. 325), countering the Arian heresy that Jesus was God’s first and noblest, Chalcedon affirmed it (Jesus is consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father) now attempted to define how Jesus was both true man and true God without diminishing or confusing either nature:
• Denying that Jesus had a split personality (the Nestorian idea) Chalcedon, Chalcedon affirmed Jesus to be one divine-human person
• Denying that Jesus deity had swallowed his humanity (the Eutychian idea), Chalcedon affirmed Jesus to have two natures having two capacities for action, reaction and experience
• Denying that one nature’s experience out-did the other nature (as in Apollinarius idea that Jesus human mind was submerged beneath his divine mind), Chalcedon insisted that each nature retained its own distinctive attributes without mixture, confusion, separation or division.
The language takes your breath away and every word of it has our salvation (the possibility of it) at its heart. J. I. Packer correctly says that the greatest mystery of the Christian faith is not the resurrection of Christ or his miracles, but his blessed incarnation—“the plurality of persons in the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God [Downers Grove, IL: 1993, InterVarsity Press], 53). Packer further states, “But once the Incarnation is grasped as a reality . . . other difficulties will dissolve” (Knowing God, p. 54).
He is correct, of course. And we have a couple of weeks to think about it, pray about it, and worship!