Essay / Theology

A Christ Worth Christmas

The Glory of the Manger is a great little book of Christmas meditations by Samuel M. Zwemer (1867-1952), the “Apostle to Islam.” The whole book is available online (a 730k pdf here, and a bunch of his other writings here) Zwemer’s most famous book was called The Glory of the Cross, and this Manger book is a kind of prequel.

In his first chapter, Zwemer goes straight for the serious doctrine at the heart of Christmas, and gives a theological account of baby Jesus that is the only possible justification for Christmas. If you’re trying to have Christmas in honor of a merely human Jesus Christ, you’re hard pressed to make it worthwhile. If you’re trying to have Christmas in honor of a Christ who began his existence there in the manger, you don’t have enough to celebrate. If you’re trying to have Christmas in honor of a Christ who you think was adopted into divinity, or promoted into godhood, or transformed into deity after the resurrection, then you don’t have a Christ worth having Christmas for.

Zwemer ponders the fact that behind the glory of the manger is “the glory of the eternal purpose” of God. What happened at Christmas was the publicizing of a work that God had planned long before. Advent was not adventitious, you might say. When Jesus Christ shows up in that manger, he is already the one who is

the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

Where did the apostle Paul get his ideas of such a cosmic Christ who came out of eternity into time, out of the glory of heaven to the inn at Bethlehem? Paul wrote his first letters before the gospels were written and circulated, so his voice is the earliest witness you hear in the New Testament. An instructive exercise is to ask how much you could know about the life of Jesus Christ if all you had to work with was Paul’s letters. Paul’s life of Christ doesn’t begin (with Mark) at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John, nor (with Matthew) in a genealogy that reaches back to Father Abraham, nor (with Luke) in a genealogy that reaches back to Adam, nor even (with John) at the word who was in the beginning with God and was made flesh. No, says Zwemer, “Paul bridges the chasms of eternity and rises from the time-born son of Mary to the Christ who was in the glory of the Father before creation.”

Paul has such a strong christology that he can introduce Jesus in this way:

though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

Zwemer comments: “Now the answer to those who stumble at these stupendous implications of a Pre-existent Christ, is simply the fact that the earliest records know no other Saviour.” Galatians 4:4, written before the gospels, tells when, how, from where, and for what reason Christ came: “But when the fullness of time had come (when), God sent forth his Son (from where), born of woman, born under the law, (how) to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (for what reason).”

This christology confesses a Christ worth celebrating Christmas for. And it is not Zwemer’s invention any more than it is Paul’s. It is the risen Christ himself who taught his church to confess him as the eternal one: “The one thought always present to the mind of Paul was the vision he saw on the road to Damascus. Jesus of Nazareth, risen from the dead, to whom all power and glory belonged, and who had this power and glory before He came to earth as our Redeemer. Back of all the genealogies, back of the lowly home at Nazareth, back of Bethlehem’s manger, Paul saw one eternal ‘Lord Jesus Christ through whom are all things, and we through Him.'” (I Cor. 8:6)

In a characteristic fit of “everyone’s phony but me” world-weariness, Edna St. Vincent Millay protested the meagerness of contemporary Christmas celebrations. Zwemer quotes her “Sonnet: (To Jesus on His Birthday)”

For this your mother sweated in the cold,
For this you bled upon the bitter tree:
A yard of tinsel ribbon bought and sold;
A paper wreath; a day at home for me.
The merry bells ring out, the people kneel;
Up goes the man of God before the crowd;
With voice of honey and eyes of steel
He drones your humble gospel to the proud.
Nobody listens. Less than the wind that blows
Are all your words to us you died to save.
O prince of Peace! O Sharon’s dewy Rose!
How mute you lie within your vaulted grave.
The stone the angel rolled away with tears
Is back upon your mouth these thousand years.

We can give a sensitive poet all the permission she needs to rebuke us for our weak response to God’s grace, but she crosses a line when her metaphor leads here to impute muteness to Christ himself, effectively putting him back within his “vaulted grave.” “Not so,” objects Zwemer. “Christ is alive forevermore. He still speaks to those who will listen. He gave Paul the gospel of the cosmic Christ and John the gospel of the Incarnation.” Instead of dividing up the moments of Christ’s life (manger vs. cross, baby Jesus vs. risen Lord, etc.), Zwemer binds them together and presents them in their majestic unity.

And along with his biblical and theological argumentation, Zwemer includes an argument that is essentially an aesthetic appeal. Quoting Gwilynn Griffith’s book St. Paul’s Life of Christ, Zwemer argues that without a high christology, a christology of a pre-existent, fully divine Son of God, all the beauty goes out of the Christian message:

We must recognize that to make Christ’s Bethlehem birth the upspringing out of the unconscious of a life which had no antecedent being and therefore no elective purpose, no will-to-be until it fashioned that will out of its own infant appetites, would be to take all the colour out of Paul’s Gospel; it would muffle the majestic organ-tones of Grace which accompany and interpret the entire recitative of Paul’s narration of Christ’s earthly ministry; it would deprive us of the glow and rapture of a redemption wrought for us at infinite cost by One who though He was rich for our sakes became poor.

“The deity of Christ,” says Zwemer, “makes all the difference in our Christmas joy. He who came to the Manger was God’s Son. To deny this is to deny essential Christianity. If the Saviour of men is not identical with their Creator there are no good-tidings of great joy for the human race and no help in the Cross for the sinner.”

He goes on: “In our day we are told to look for ‘the historic Jesus,’ the man of Galilee, a teacher sent of God, the friend of the outcast and the oppressed, the critic of society and the Jewish church, very like other great reformers even in his limitations. But a merely human Christ, no matter how humane and tender, can not suffice. We need the Lord of Glory, the Christ of eternal love and eternal redemption, the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world. We need a Saviour who is alive forevermore and who abolished death and brought life and immortality to the world by His incarnation.”

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