All throughout the Christmas season, this season of anticipation, we hear many familiar Christmas hymns. “Silent Night” is one, and one of the most powerful phrases is “Christ the Savior is born.” These words are particularly relevant as we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of Christ. As we prepare for Christmas, it would do us good to reflect on why we call Jesus Christ our Savior.
In Matthew 1:1-25, the first 18 verses are devoted to a review of Jesus’ genealogy. And the next seven verses are devoted to the events occurring shortly before Jesus’ birth.
We read that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit of God and that Joseph, her betrothed, wants to keep it quiet so she won’t be publicly scorned, persecuted or even killed because of her pregnancy, which occurred while Joseph was away. But before he can do this, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph to explain what has happened and tells him what to do. The angel says that the child’s name will be “Jesus,” for He will “save His people from their sins.”
So there you have it – we call Jesus of Nazareth “Savior” because He will “save His people from their sins.” In fact, the name “Jesus” literally means “God saves.” That’s the essence of the holiday.
Christ’s incarnation is an important event not only because it is the beginning of the earthly life of Jesus, but because it affirms the inherent goodness of human nature and, by extension, the rest of creation. God created us good. And He created the rest of the world good. We, however, have fallen away from that innocence, that holiness, that goodness, and the whole world suffers because of it. So, Christ’s incarnation is the beginning of a cosmic renewal, the remaking of the whole world.
But the salvation of mankind cannot happen against our own will. It cannot be forced upon us. Mary could have said no to the annunciation by Archangel Gabriel that she was to give birth to Jesus, but she said yes, “Let it be to me according to your word.” And Joseph still could have put away his pregnant fiancee, even after the angel told him not to. But after Joseph awoke from sleep, “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took her as his wife.”
In other words, both Mary and Joseph were freely obedient to the Lord to help enact His plan for saving the world from sin. And that’s what it takes for us to participate in this saving process. For Christ’s incarnation to have its desired effect on our lives, we need to be freely obedient to Christ’s plan for our salvation as well.
Calling Christ the Savior of the world is important, but more important is calling Him “Our Savior” or “My Savior.” In other words, we have to personalize our relationship with Him because He not only came to save mankind in general but, more importantly, Christ was born to save each one of us.
We’ve all seen those bumper stickers and billboards that say “Keep Christ in Christmas,” and I think the purpose is to keep Christ’s incarnation as the center of the public, national observance of this holiday. But we need to make sure to keep Christ in Christmas in our own lives. We’ve all heard the phrase that Christ is the “reason for the season,” but I wonder if that is a theologically correct statement.
If Christ was born as a man to “save His people from their sins,” that would mean that we are the reason for the season. He came to save us, not to save Himself. He doesn’t need saving. He didn’t become a man for His own sake; He did it for ours.
So if we are to properly “keep Christ in Christmas,” we necessarily have to include ourselves, our inherent goodness, our willful sinfulness and Christ’s love and mercy for us in that notion of Christmas.
Hymns from the Eastern Orthodox Christian vespers service of the Nativity summarize the idea.
“Come, let us rejoice in the Lord, as we tell about this mystery. The middle wall of separation has been broken down; the fiery sword has turned back, the Cherubim permits access to the tree of life; and I partake of the delight of Paradise, from which I was cast out because of disobedience. For the exact Image of the Father, the express Image of His eternity, takes the form of a servant, coming forth from a Virgin Mother; and He undergoes no change. He remained what He was, true God; and He took up what He was not, becoming human in His love for humanity. Let us cry out to Him: “You who were born from a Virgin, O God, have mercy on us.”
“Your kingdom, O Christ God, is a kingdom of all the ages, and Your dominion is from generation to generation. You who were incarnate by the Holy Spirit and became man by the ever-virgin Mary, have shone on us as light, by Your advent, O Christ God. Light of light, the brightness of the Father, You have brightened all creation. Everything that breathes praises You, the express image of the Father’s glory. O God, the One who is and who pre-existed, and who shone forth from the Virgin, have mercy on us.”
May the Lord, who has brightened all creation, brighten all our lives as we celebrate His nativity.
The Rev. Joseph Z. DiStefano is pastor of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Youngstown.