December 18, 2009

The Incarnation and Christ’s pre-existence: At Christmas, we celebrate the birthday of the God-man sent by his Father to accomplish our redemption

By John F. Fink

Since Christmas has become such an important feast in the Church calendar, it sometimes comes as a shock when people learn that the early Christians didn’t celebrate the feast.

They didn’t think that the day Jesus was born was particularly important. It wasn’t until the year 336 that we have the first mention of special religious services on Dec. 25 in memory of Christ’s birth.

Of course, we don’t know that Jesus was born on Dec. 25. Since Luke’s Gospel tells us that shepherds were tending their sheep at night, it seems more likely that it would have been during more temperate weather than is usually found at the beginning of winter in Bethlehem.

Dec. 25 was selected because the Romans already had a feast on that day in honor of their sun god Mithra, who had been the chief Persian god since the fifth century B.C. The Romans also had a festival in mid-December, known as the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturnus, the fertility god of agriculture.

The Christians adopted the festival after Emperor Constantine permitted freedom of religion in the Roman Empire.

But if the early Christians didn’t celebrate the exact day when they thought that Jesus might have been born, they certainly maintained their belief in the reason we celebrate Christmas today—that the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became a human being and lived among us. This is the doctrine of the Incarnation.

We should be awestruck by this doctrine, but we so often just take it for granted. It’s incredible that the eternal,

all-powerful God should take on human nature from his mother, unite it to his divinity and then live a human existence with all the limitations of that life.

We are sometimes told by people who doubt the doctrine of the Incarnation that the early Christians didn’t really believe in the pre-existence of Christ. Rather, they say, that doctrine only developed over a period of time. They claim that it’s not in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the earliest Gospels, but only in the Gospel of John, which wasn’t written until the last decade of the first century.

Well, it certainly is in the Gospel of John. That Gospel wanted to make it clear from the outset that Christ pre-existed so it begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:1-3).

It’s believed that this was an early Christian hymn with which the first readers of this Gospel would have been familiar. It not only emphasizes the Word’s pre-existence, but it’s also poetic in structure, with short phrases linked by what is called “staircase parallelism,” in which the last word of one phrase—in the Greek in which the Gospel was written—becomes the first word of the next.

Then, the Gospel tells us, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). It’s this Word, through whom the world came to be, who lived among us.

It’s not only in the Prologue of John’s Gospel that Christ’s pre-existence is emphasized. That Gospel stresses Christ’s divinity and his pre-existence throughout. For example, “Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM’ ” (Jn 8:58).

What about the other Gospels? They are not as explicit as John’s Gospel, but the idea of Christ’s pre-existence is present in Christ’s words about why he came into the world, or why he was sent. For example, Jesus said, “He who receives me receives him who sent me” (Mt 10:40 and Lk 9:48).

Matthew’s Gospel also has this quotation from Jesus concerning his coming into the world: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17).

Luke’s Gospel, too, quotes Jesus as saying, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10).

However, the early Christians clearly believed in the Incarnation well before any of the four Gospels were written. We know that from the letters of St. Paul, which were written before the Gospels.

Perhaps the best example is the early Christian hymn that St. Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians when he said that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). St. Paul wrote that letter sometime in the mid-50s.

St. Paul taught in his other letters that God sent his Son into the world. In the Letter to the Galatians, he wrote, “When the fullness of time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4).

In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote, “[T]his God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3).

St. Paul also wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). That Christ was “rich” indicated his divinity while the fact that “he became poor” meant that he became human.

At Christmas, we celebrate the birthday of the God-man sent by his Father to accomplish our redemption. The Incarnation actually occurred nine months earlier, at the Annunciation, when Mary agreed to be the mother of our redeemer, but we humans like to celebrate birthdays rather than conceptions. We have pretty pictures of the Holy Family as artists have painted them for centuries.

The earliest Christians might not have celebrated Christ’s birthday, but they did believe in his pre-existence as the eternal Son of God who was sent into the world by his Father. John’s Gospel says it best: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17).

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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