It’s the time of the year when the Christian world will be celebrating the feast of Christmas. This feast is arguably the most popular holiday season for Christians and non-Christians alike, but do we really know what this feast is all about? The word Christmas comes from the old English Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ.
Apparently, Jesus Christ is the focus of the feast and in order to celebrate this feast properly one would need to know the person of Christ. I want to shed some light on the person of Jesus Christ from three perspectives posed as questions: How was Jesus understood throughout history? How is Jesus presented to us in the Bible? Finally, how should we understand Jesus today?
Jesus throughout history
Historically, the person of Jesus Christ has always been a controversial figure. Jews, Romans and Gentiles disagreed as to who this person is. His followers on the other hand and from the beginning of his public ministry perceived him as the Maasai, the savior of Israel.
This Messiah was understood by some believers as God taking on a human flesh. The letter to the “Diognetus” which was written in the early part of the second century attests to the understanding of the person of Jesus Christ as full man and full God. Some other Jews thought the idea of God becoming man is a challenge to their core belief as Jews. Jews believed God is one and they reminded themselves of this reality twice daily through the Shema prayer “Listen o Israel, the Lord your God is one” for those Jews the idea of the divinity of Jesus presented a stumbling block to their belief in him.
Not only Jews but some Christians throughout history were challenged with the idea of the divinity of Christ, so they attempted to simplify it by presenting some logical alternatives which led to many heresies. Some attempted to put all the focus on the human nature of Christ. the result of that made Jesus a mere messenger created by God (Arianism). Others attempted to explain the person of Jesus Christ by focusing solely on his two natures. The outcome of that made Jesus two persons figure with two natures (Nestorianism). And others attempted to explain the person of Jesus Christ by focusing on his divine nature only. The result of that undermined the humanity of Jesus (Monophysitism).
All these attempts and others tried to explain the person of Jesus by using reason alone. Reason is good but as I mentioned in my October article, reason cannot work independently from God, who is the source of all reason. Giving the limitation of the human mind, the approach of reason alone could lead man to fall in error (heresy). Heresies have always been the product of man’s attempt to explain a reality bigger than himself; the result of that is a new set of teachings that fit a particular mindset at a particular time.
On the other hand, the church has always understood Jesus as the savior of the human race, the new Adam who came at the fullness of time to re-do what Adam did. Adam sinned as a human person therefore atonement for his sin had to be paid by a human person, but since the gravity of Adam’s sin against God was so great it needed God himself to take on a human person and pay the price of that sin. Jesus accomplished that by living all his life without committing a sin and then dying on the cross as an atonement for our sins. It is based on this reasoning and what sacred scripture reveals to us, the church proclaims Jesus as one person with two natures (Human and Divine), but is that what scripture teaches us about Jesus?
Jesus in the Bible
The books of sacred scripture presented Jesus to us as a complete man and as a complete God in many occasions, directly and indirectly. As a man Jesus was born of a woman LK 2:7, grew up as a young man LK 2:40, got tired JN4:6, was thirsty JN 19:28, got hungry MK 11:12 and experienced death MT 27:50. The bible also shows Jesus performing acts that only God is capable of performing. He healed physical illnesses JN 9:6, healed mental illnesses MT 17:14, forgave sinners MT 9:1, raised the dead JN 11:38, showed control over nature MK 4:35 and many other miracles. All these miracles were performed by Jesus using his own authority unlike all other prophets before him.
The bible shows the uniqueness of Jesus’s authority in the Sermon on the Mount presented to us in the gospel of Matthew chapter five. In this chapter, Jesus teaches the crowd by contrasting between what they have learned before him by the prophets versus what he is teaching them now, so he repeatedly says “You have heard before... but I say to you” as an indication of the uniqueness of his Godly authority. The bible not only speaks of Jesus’ divinity through his miracles but it clearly teaches it in more than one place. For example, the gospel of John starts with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is the word and in this verse the bible confirms the equality between the word and God Himself. All these bible verses and others solidify the understanding of the person of Jesus as fully human and fully divine which is conditional to his mission as a savior. The savior’s mission is to bring humanity back to God the father after the fall of Adam in sin which caused complete separation from God. In another word, the savior’s mission is to bring the human will back in union with the divine will which can only be done through the one who has both, Jesus Christ. Jesus as God man is the missing link that was needed to bring the fallen human will to its union with the father’s eternal will and by doing that, He made salvation possible. What does that mean to us?
Jesus and me
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we need to ask ourselves who is Jesus to us? The English thinker C.S. Lewis once said that in light of everything we know about Jesus from reason and revelation, Jesus must be one of three words that start with the letter “L”. He is either a lunatic, a liar or Lord. He reasons through that by saying how can a person live all his life without committing a sin, heal the sick, raise the dead, claim to be the road to eternal life be anything outside of these three options. Well, I can say with certainty that no human being today would dare to claim that Jesus was a lunatic or a liar that leaves us with one option. He is our Lord and if He is our Lord then the most important question that we should ask ourselves today is: Have we in our life met this Lord personally? Only when we meet Him personally will Christmas have a real meaning.
Karam Bahnam has a BA in Philosophy and is currently working on his MA in Theology; he is a co-founder of the Eastern Catholic Re-evangelization Center (ECRC).