By Jeremy F. Simons
The imagery of Christmas is likely to captivate you, whether Christmas itself makes logical sense or not. You don’t need to understand messianic theology to want to be home for the holidays. But the holidays may be more satisfying if the logic behind them makes sense.
A Simple Theme
Christmas theology is not hard to grasp. According to biblical teaching, Jesus was born because the world was advancing into spiritual darkness. People had increasingly turned away from God, causing war, crime, and poverty. God came to earth to reverse this decline by reasserting his kingship. A light shone in the darkness. In time, this light would spread, bringing peace on earth and good will among all peoples. This theme pervades every detail of the Christmas story.
The messianic prophecies lay out the theme. Dozens of prophecies focus on the coming of a divine ruler who would break the power of evil and restore peace. They use language like, “he will strike [the] head [of the serpent]” (Genesis 3:15), “authority rests upon his shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6), and “he has sent me to . . . bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1).
The theme echoes throughout the Christmas story. Mary is told that her child will “reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:33). Zechariah says that this child will “give light to those who sit in darkness . . . to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). The angels tell the shepherds of a savior who will bring “on earth peace [and] good will toward [all people]” (Luke 2:14, King James Version).
The presence of darkness adds drama to the story. The darkness is in the hearts of the people, and it’s especially in their rulers. The darkness wishes to snuff out the light at its birth. Darkness and night are therefore featured repeatedly in the gospel account.
A number of similar contrasts reinforce the tension between light and darkness. The child is destined to be a king, yet he is born in humble circumstances, there being “no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). He is to be “King of the Jews,” yet his birth troubles the actual rulers and is recognized only by kings from a distant land. The shepherds who come are poor and ignorant, yet they are symbolic stand-ins for the “shepherds of Israel” (Ezekiel 34:1–2), the leaders who would later reject their Messiah, “the good shepherd” (John 10).
He Was Born to Subdue the Darkness
The contrasts between light and darkness, rich and poor, and mighty and lowly illustrate the substance of the struggle that is the reason for his coming. The Messiah came to “[bring] down the powerful from their thrones, and [lift] up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). He would do battle with the powers that be and restore good people to their rightful place. As the New Testament unfolds, this struggle with the “power of darkness” (Luke 22:53) is a continuing theme. The contest is seen throughout the gospels in the debates, sermons, healings, and parables of Jesus—and ultimately in his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. This is how he overcame the darkness. Swedenborg puts it this way:
The Lord chose to come down from heaven, become the Word, and fulfill it. By doing this he put the Word back together and restored it, giving light once again to the inhabitants of our world. (True Christianity §270)
The Effects Continue
Although these events took place more than two thousand years ago, the effects are still being played out. In a sense, it is a continuing contest of ideas. Jesus said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). According to Swedenborg, Genesis 1 and John 1 tell us that “goodness and truth are something transcendent [and] that the Lord is goodness itself, or life, and truth itself, or light, and consequently that nothing good or true exists that does not come from him” (Secrets of Heaven §20). A logical extension of this thought is that we are regenerated by the truth of goodness, or the light of life: “I am the light of the world,” Jesus said. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The glittering beauty of Christmas is a happy vehicle for these hopeful ideas. Christmas is about peace on earth, freedom from captivity, and the healing of the brokenhearted. The confidence that these things will really happen is what Christian faith is all about. Christmas is not just for children; it is a time for thinking Christians to appreciate the wisdom and the grace of God.
Jeremy F. Simons is a minister of the General Church of the New Jerusalem and a former senior pastor at the Bryn Athyn Cathedral.