The Man behind Christmas

Even though Christmas is widely considered the most exciting and joyous of holidays most of us know very little about the person in whose honor it is celebrated. If you asked fifty random people to explain who the man who gave this season its name was, you would get uneven response. The answers would likely include such varied designations as a great moral teacher, a charismatic religious leader, a powerful preacher, a heroic martyr and a revolutionary social reformer.

If you pressed your respondents further and asked them to identity the goal and purpose of Jesus' earthly ministry, the chances are you would not walk away with a satisfactory explanation. In fact, your query would likely elicit shrugging shoulders and confused bewilderment.

This lack of knowledge is remarkable given the fact that Jesus Christ is not only pivotal to our own civilization, but he is also by far the most influential figure in history. So much so that the world uses the year of his birth as the central reference point in keeping track of historical time. His thoughts are deemed so profound that his every single recorded word has been carefully numbered and his every known utterance analyzed in innumerable books and treatises. More books have been written about him than about any other historical personage. The number of times he has been depicted in painting and sculpture exceeds by an order of magnitude the depictions of all the other great men combined. His ideas have shaped western civilization to such an extent that it has been called Christendom and his pronouncements defined the way people across the world understand concepts such as love, mercy, justice, friendship, charity and sacrifice.

But even though Jesus Christ towers over history like no other most of us have no substantive idea of who he really was. There truly could be no better time to address this lack than Christmas, an annual birthday celebration devoted to the meek Jewish carpenter from Galilee.

When we inquire into questions of history, it is important that we consult the right sources. In this case all material that can lay a claim to being authentic is collected in the portion of the Bible known as the New Testament. A careful study of the New Testament reveals a Jesus that is radically different from the image held of him by the average citizen of Christendom. The founder of Christianity did not primarily come as a teacher, preacher, martyr, leader or a social reformer. He came as a saviour to resolve the most pressing and intractable problem of human existence.

Most people recognize that their conduct falls short of the standard mandated by their own conscience. When we take an honest look at our lives we are certain to find innumerable instances where we failed to live up to our own ethical expectations. This is why few of us would ever hold ourselves up as exemplars of moral probity. In other words, we all are to one degree or another aware of our own moral inadequacy.

That awareness is connected with the nearly universal intuition that every moral wrong will in due course receive a just recompense. "What we sow, we reap," the ancient saying goes. Most people harbour an innate sense that the moral ledger will be balanced in the end. But since not all wrongdoing is justly dealt with in this life our intuition posits the existence of the beyond where the final reckoning will ultimately take place.

This dynamic has been at the centre of most religions, which is why most religions are in the final analysis attempts to appease the deity responsible for the administration of cosmic justice. Put another way, most religions pivot around the effort to avert divine punishment due to man's moral failings. This is usually attempted through propitiation, which takes two primary forms: good works and sacrifices.

But these never quite yield satisfactory results. Good works -- regardless of how grand -- carried out for the purpose of self-justification never quite reach the level of the disinterested selflessness demanded by our conscience. And sacrifices, no matter how frequent or numerous, simply lack the power to wash away the stain of man's guilt. Most religions thus leave their followers in a perennial double bind, convicted by their conscience and feeling condemned before the righteous deity.

And here is where Jesus Christ, a Jew born in Bethlehem, comes in. He burst on the scene in the third decade of the first century to free people from their perpetual predicament by doing away with the reproach and penalty for their wrongdoing. The way he would attempt this was as mind-boggling in conception as it was spectacular in execution. He would take mankind's moral failings upon his shoulders and then offer himself to bear the divine wrath in own his person. Such an act -- were he able to pull it off -- would accomplish two things. It would satisfy the requirements of cosmic justice and at last reconcile man to God.

But how can one man take upon himself the sins of another? Jesus claimed this ability by virtue of his unique nature. All throughout his public ministry, Jesus kept hinting that he was God who took on human form to accomplish the task of redemption. The second person of the triune Godhead, the son came down to earth in the body of a man. Thus incarnated he came to be known as Jesus of Nazareth.

According to the record of the New Testament, Jesus' claim of his divinity was ultimately vindicated in the most stunning event in all of history. That event was Jesus' resurrection from the dead three days after he was brutally crucified on the orders of Roman authorities.

Although Jesus offered to freely pay for man's sins, forgiveness is not automatic. For forgiveness to actually take place one must first personally appropriate Christ's sacrifice. This is done through faith, that mysterious conduit through which salvation flows.

Saving faith is far more than mere intellectual assent to the bare facts of the Bible. It is the heartfelt conviction that Jesus of Nazareth hung on that rugged cross specifically for the believer's personal transgressions. Such faith is preceded by repentance actuated by the realization that one has transgressed against God's law -- as made known through conscience -- and that one is a sinner rightly deserving of divine condemnation. It includes the recognition that we are powerless to redeem ourselves, and that for salvation we must wholly rely on Jesus by accepting his love and sacrifice.

Therein lies the life mission of the man whose birthday we now celebrate. His story is so magnificent in nature, scope and implications that it has been rightly called the greatest story ever told. But his life, death and resurrection are more than a mere story. They are the most precious gift ever given - the ultimate gift to mankind of love, hope and salvation from the God-man born in the small Judean town of Bethlehem.
Even though Christmas is widely considered the most exciting and joyous of holidays most of us know very little about the person in whose honor it is celebrated. If you asked fifty random people to explain who the man who gave this season its name was, you would get uneven response. The answers would likely include such varied designations as a great moral teacher, a charismatic religious leader, a powerful preacher, a heroic martyr and a revolutionary social reformer.

If you pressed your respondents further and asked them to identity the goal and purpose of Jesus' earthly ministry, the chances are you would not walk away with a satisfactory explanation. In fact, your query would likely elicit shrugging shoulders and confused bewilderment.

This lack of knowledge is remarkable given the fact that Jesus Christ is not only pivotal to our own civilization, but he is also by far the most influential figure in history. So much so that the world uses the year of his birth as the central reference point in keeping track of historical time. His thoughts are deemed so profound that his every single recorded word has been carefully numbered and his every known utterance analyzed in innumerable books and treatises. More books have been written about him than about any other historical personage. The number of times he has been depicted in painting and sculpture exceeds by an order of magnitude the depictions of all the other great men combined. His ideas have shaped western civilization to such an extent that it has been called Christendom and his pronouncements defined the way people across the world understand concepts such as love, mercy, justice, friendship, charity and sacrifice.

But even though Jesus Christ towers over history like no other most of us have no substantive idea of who he really was. There truly could be no better time to address this lack than Christmas, an annual birthday celebration devoted to the meek Jewish carpenter from Galilee.

When we inquire into questions of history, it is important that we consult the right sources. In this case all material that can lay a claim to being authentic is collected in the portion of the Bible known as the New Testament. A careful study of the New Testament reveals a Jesus that is radically different from the image held of him by the average citizen of Christendom. The founder of Christianity did not primarily come as a teacher, preacher, martyr, leader or a social reformer. He came as a saviour to resolve the most pressing and intractable problem of human existence.

Most people recognize that their conduct falls short of the standard mandated by their own conscience. When we take an honest look at our lives we are certain to find innumerable instances where we failed to live up to our own ethical expectations. This is why few of us would ever hold ourselves up as exemplars of moral probity. In other words, we all are to one degree or another aware of our own moral inadequacy.

That awareness is connected with the nearly universal intuition that every moral wrong will in due course receive a just recompense. "What we sow, we reap," the ancient saying goes. Most people harbour an innate sense that the moral ledger will be balanced in the end. But since not all wrongdoing is justly dealt with in this life our intuition posits the existence of the beyond where the final reckoning will ultimately take place.

This dynamic has been at the centre of most religions, which is why most religions are in the final analysis attempts to appease the deity responsible for the administration of cosmic justice. Put another way, most religions pivot around the effort to avert divine punishment due to man's moral failings. This is usually attempted through propitiation, which takes two primary forms: good works and sacrifices.

But these never quite yield satisfactory results. Good works -- regardless of how grand -- carried out for the purpose of self-justification never quite reach the level of the disinterested selflessness demanded by our conscience. And sacrifices, no matter how frequent or numerous, simply lack the power to wash away the stain of man's guilt. Most religions thus leave their followers in a perennial double bind, convicted by their conscience and feeling condemned before the righteous deity.

And here is where Jesus Christ, a Jew born in Bethlehem, comes in. He burst on the scene in the third decade of the first century to free people from their perpetual predicament by doing away with the reproach and penalty for their wrongdoing. The way he would attempt this was as mind-boggling in conception as it was spectacular in execution. He would take mankind's moral failings upon his shoulders and then offer himself to bear the divine wrath in own his person. Such an act -- were he able to pull it off -- would accomplish two things. It would satisfy the requirements of cosmic justice and at last reconcile man to God.

But how can one man take upon himself the sins of another? Jesus claimed this ability by virtue of his unique nature. All throughout his public ministry, Jesus kept hinting that he was God who took on human form to accomplish the task of redemption. The second person of the triune Godhead, the son came down to earth in the body of a man. Thus incarnated he came to be known as Jesus of Nazareth.

According to the record of the New Testament, Jesus' claim of his divinity was ultimately vindicated in the most stunning event in all of history. That event was Jesus' resurrection from the dead three days after he was brutally crucified on the orders of Roman authorities.

Although Jesus offered to freely pay for man's sins, forgiveness is not automatic. For forgiveness to actually take place one must first personally appropriate Christ's sacrifice. This is done through faith, that mysterious conduit through which salvation flows.

Saving faith is far more than mere intellectual assent to the bare facts of the Bible. It is the heartfelt conviction that Jesus of Nazareth hung on that rugged cross specifically for the believer's personal transgressions. Such faith is preceded by repentance actuated by the realization that one has transgressed against God's law -- as made known through conscience -- and that one is a sinner rightly deserving of divine condemnation. It includes the recognition that we are powerless to redeem ourselves, and that for salvation we must wholly rely on Jesus by accepting his love and sacrifice.

Therein lies the life mission of the man whose birthday we now celebrate. His story is so magnificent in nature, scope and implications that it has been rightly called the greatest story ever told. But his life, death and resurrection are more than a mere story. They are the most precious gift ever given - the ultimate gift to mankind of love, hope and salvation from the God-man born in the small Judean town of Bethlehem.