by Bob Wheeler


Fra Angelico, The Annunciation


Christmas, of course, is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Christ.  But what is so special about Christ?  Have there not been other great men in history whose birthdays are worth commemorating?  What sets Christ apart from all the rest?

We will let Mary tell the story.  The gospels of both Matthew and Luke describe the birth of Christ; but Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s perspective, while Luke tells it from Mary’s.  And quite an extraordinary story it is.  In Luke chapter 1 we are told that the angel Gabriel came to Mary to explain what was about to happen to her.  Gabriel told her that she would conceive a son, and call His name Jesus.  “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Lu. 1:32,33; NKJV).  Mary would, in effect, be giving birth to the long awaited Messiah.  The prophet Daniel in the Old Testament had predicted that there would come One “like the Son of Man,” who would be given a universal dominion, and that “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, / Which shall not pass away, / And His kingdom the One / Which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13,14).

But how would this even be possible?  How could a child of Mary’s be considered “the Son of the Highest”?  Gabriel explained: this would be no ordinary birth.  Instead of the normal sexual relationship she would conceive by the Holy Spirit.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (v. 35).  In other words the child would be no ordinary human being.  While He would have a human mother (Mary), His Father would be none other than God himself, making the child both God and man at the same time.

Mary, as one might expect, was absolutely astonished.  A virgin birth would normally be considered impossible.  But Gabriel pointed out to Mary that “With God nothing will be impossible” (v. 37), and Mary replied, “Let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).

Not long afterward Mary visited her relative Elizabeth, who in her old age had conceived a child who would become John the Baptist.  As soon as Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped.  And filled with the Holy Spirit Elizabeth declared “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (v. 42).  Elizabeth went on to call Mary “the mother of my Lord” (v. 43), and said “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (v. 45).  Elizabeth, in other words, realized that what was happening to Mary was extraordinary.

This led Mary to break out in worship with what has come to be known as the “Magnificat,” from the opening words in the Latin Vulgate translation (“Magnificat anima mea Dominum” – “My soul magnifies the Lord’).  She begins by praising God for what He has done for her personally: “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant” (v. 48).  What the Lord was doing in her life, using her to bring forth the Messiah, would have been extraordinary for any woman.  But significantly God did not choose an aristocratic noblewoman for this honor, but someone of “lowly state” – a young virgin engaged to a carpenter.  And, as a result, “henceforth all generations will call me blessed”; and so they did.

But then Mary goes on to reflect on the broader significance of the event for the human race as a whole.  Using language reminiscent of Psalm 113:5-8 and especially Hannah’s prayer in I Sam. 2:1-10, she declares that God’s mercy is on those who fear Him (v. 50).  Specifically God has scattered the proud, pulled down the mighty from their thrones, and sent the rich away empty, while exalting the lowly and filling the hungry with good things (vv. 51-53).

This may seem like a bit of rhetorical overstatement, given the fact that Mary had not yet actually given birth at the time that she said this.  But she is using verbs in the past tense to describe prophetically events yet to take place in the future.  Undoubtedly she is reflecting on Old Testament prophecies regarding the kingdom of the Messiah.  Throughout human history the rich, the strong and the powerful have taken advantage of the weak and vulnerable, and Israel itself had felt threatened by more powerful neighbors.  But when the Messiah comes all of this will be overturned, and perfect peace and justice will reign.  Isaiah could prophesy that “unto us a child is born” and “the government will be upon His shoulder,” and He will sit upon the throne of David “to order it and establish it with judgment and justice” (Isa. 9:1-7).  Mary concluded by reflecting on God’s mercy to Israel as promised to the patriarchs of old.

What Mary could not see was how all of this would be fulfilled.  What she could not have known is that Christ would come twice; that He would first have to make an atonement for human sin, and that then the gospel would go forth into the entire world calling men and women to repentance and faith.  Only after then would He return in the clouds in power and glory to take the throne and usher in an era of perfect peace.  In the meantime the kingdom exists in the hearts of true believers scattered throughout the world, largely invisible but real nonetheless.

The birth of Christ was the decisive turning point in history.  Up until then sin and darkness had ruled nearly everywhere.   The human race was sunk in superstition and vice.  But with the birth of Christ the light shone into the world, bringing spiritual life to untold multitudes with a hope for a better tomorrow.

And that is why we celebrate Christmas!