The Change Christmas Brings
Did Christmas truly change the world? Did Christ come into the world to usher in a utopia? The Jews waited for a Messiah, whom the ancient prophets foretold would usher in a new era, fundamentally changing history? Yet let’s be honest, can we say that the world we live in is such a different place pre-Christmas compared to post-Christmas?
If we hoped that God’s entrance into the world would change fallen humanity and the dark, broken world in which we live, then we’re surely disappointed. For example, we heard the prophesy of Isaiah “For to us a Child is born, a Son is given us; upon His shoulder dominion rests. His name is Great Messenger, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty One, Sovereign Master, Prince of Peace …. of His peace there shall be no end.” Well, Jesus surely didn’t usher in an era of “peace with no end,” where harmony and unity reign in the world. Wars and violence continue even after the birth of Christ. We see hostility among nations, in cities, within families, and even in the hearts of many in every generation.
What about Isaiah’s Messianic vision that “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little Child to guide them.” Surely the wolf and the lamb remain adversaries. The leopard will eat the goat and the lion will devour the calf.
Thus, what good news does Jesus bring if we still experience suffering and death, like in the midst of a global pandemic? Well, we need to understand the change which the Messiah brought – not a utopia but a change on how we experience and navigate the darkness of the world.
Let’s first look at the life of Christ Himself. God enter the world as a poor, defenseless child. He displayed extreme humility by being born in a manger among animals. He grew up the child of a poor and simple Virgin maiden. He didn’t revel in His divinity but experienced the fullness of his limited human nature. He lived in obscurity for 30 years. He grew up in a village with a bad reputation. He worked manual labor as a carpenter. He never owned a home. He had no wife or children. He became an itinerate preacher traveling from village to village for only three years. He never held a position of high social standing. He never left the backward little corner of the Roman Empire in which he was born. He wasn’t a mighty military figure and didn’t create any empire. He wasn’t a world-renown scholar or teacher. He didn’t do the things that the world identifies with greatness.
After three years of preaching, His own people turned against Him. One friend betrayed Him. Another friend denied even knowing Him. The very religious leaders who were waiting for the Messiah turned Him over to the worldly authorities to mock Him, torture Him, and kill Him in the most humiliating and shameful way. He willingly accepted the path of suffering and death, and with his death the dreams for a messianic utopia seemed to die with Him.
We see that in all Jesus endured throughout His life, He didn’t change the darkness of the world, but fully embraced it. He identified with the worst that anyone can experience in life yet overcame it. We all know that his life and death aren’t the end of the story. He tasted the most horrible death, and then transformed it. We may say He didn’t change the world into a perfect utopia, but He did usher a new way to handle the darkness of the world with hope. He changed our perspective and worldview on not only how we live life, but how we view life and death itself.
We see a beautiful example of this new perspective in Saint Stephen, whose memory we celebrate every December 27th. Today, we remember the first Christian martyr, the first follower of Jesus killed for his faith. Stephen was a young man and one of the first deacons of the early church. He faithfully loved Jesus Christ and preached to others about the ways of God. Yet, at a young age, the religious leaders of the day murdered Stephen, stoning him to death.
In the eyes of the world, many would look upon the death of a young man as a terrible tragedy. A young deacon of the church killed by a fanatic mob – murdered in a horrible and unjust manner, by people throwing stones at him until he died.
Yet what some people see as an example of darkness and evil in the world, Christians actually view in a distinctive light. This different perspective precisely highlights what change the coming of Christ brings into the world. Followers of Jesus don’t see Stephen’s death as a horrible and unjust tragedy. Instead, we see his life and death as a part of the mystery of God in this ongoing fallen world, a mystery full of meaning and purpose and hope.
First, we look at the life of Stephen and admire his commitment and courage. He followed his Lord Jesus with passion and with no fear. He proclaimed the word of God as a message of hope and salvation to all people, and when others attacked him for this message, he remained bold and courageous. He set an example for what it means to be a true follower of Jesus Christ.
Second, Stephen reminds us to always keep our eyes on the heavenly and eternal perspective of God. As the mob threatened the young deacon with violence, the Holy Spirit inspired Stephen with a vision – “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” He didn’t allow the violence and darkness of the world to cloud his vision of God.
Third, despite the evil he suffered, Stephen maintained a forgiving and merciful spirit even towards those who killed him. The crowd dragged him out of the city and began to stone him, and Stephen responded by praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Can you imagine that? Men killing Stephen by stoning him and he responds by praying for his very enemies, asking God to forgive them for their sin. That surely is a different perspective to have on life and death!
Finally, up to his last moment in life, Stephen understands that his life is not his own, but he is God’s. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he utters as his last words. God would have the final word. Saint Stephen was the first among the Christians martyrs to exemplify Saint Paul’s words, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14:8)
From the time of Christ’s birth 2000 years ago until today, millions and millions of Christians have died, like Saint Stephen, as martyrs of the faith. Imagine, more than 70 million Christians have died as martyrs over the past two millenia. Every day in our Church calendar, we remember and honor the memory of different martyrs as models of the faith, and remember how they embraced the new vision that Christ brought into the world from the time through his Incarnation.
Yes, Christmas did change the world! It changed the way we view all that happens in the world. We face the darkness with courage and hope, with an eternal vision and with deep faith that “whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.”
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