Of Christmas and More than an Infant

Photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash

This Christmas many people will sing and speak praises of a baby born in Bethlehem 2021 years ago.  Unfortunately, too many people never get past that story of the “Babe of Bethlehem.”  It is sweet, it is joyful, but it is not enough. 

The birth of Jesus, the Son of God, was miraculous.  Unlike the birth of anyone else, his birth was prophesied over thousands of years, with prophecies fulfilled in every particular, and prophecies that are continuing and accelerating in their fulfillment today.  What does that mean for us?  It means that this is all part of a very big deal.  It is what the prophet Alma said “is of more importance than” all (Alma 7:7).

We love to sing Christmas carols.  The words of carols, however, can at times challenge the vocabulary of little children.  In my younger years of singing “The First Noel” I was certain that the word “certain” in the second line was a verb, not an adjective.  “The first Noel the angel did say/ Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay. . . ”  In my young mind “certain” described what and why the angel was speaking to the shepherds.  The angel appeared in order to certain the shepherds.

Today I am not so sure that I was wrong in hearing a verb.  The angel wanted those shepherds to know, to understand, to be certain of what they saw, and thereby to become witnesses of something extremely important.  The angel explained what was happening, what it meant, where it was happening, how to recognize the marvel, and then the shepherds quickly went to see for themselves, personally.  Immediately afterward they shared with others what they knew.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . . For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. . . . And they came with haste, and found . . . the babe lying in a manger.  And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” (Luke 2:8-17, emphasis added)

Following His resurrection, Jesus was careful to make His disciples certain of His resurrection so that they might witness to others of what they knew, enabling others at first to believe and then come to know for themselves by the testimony of the Holy Ghost.

The Father and the Son want us to know so that we might understand—actually, so that we might not misunderstand.  They appeared to Joseph Smith, such that Joseph’s knowledge was, from the first, certain.  He then could testify, “I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me . . .” (Joseph Smith History 1:25)

I have gained my own witness that Joseph’s certainty was true.  I, too, have been certained by the power of the Holy Ghost.  I know for sure that God is real and that Jesus Christ is the resurrected Savior of the world.  God has given certain witness to Joseph Smith and the prophets since then, including the prophet today, Russell M. Nelson.  Many have believed and had belief confirmed into certainty by the assurance of the Holy Ghost.

The words to the carol, “What Child Is This?” are a soul-deep meditation on why the birth of this Baby is so important.  The musings lead to an answer found in what this Child would later do

I fear that many modern renditions of the carol miss—or perhaps even avoid—the point. Among the dozen or so recordings of that carol in my possession, I discovered to my surprise that all but maybe four leave out the second of three verses written by William C. Dix, the one that holds a central place explaining why this birth was important.  Some repeat, again and again, the true declaration that this Child is “Christ the King.” Recognition of that reality is essential, but how far does it get you?  Even Herod believed and feared that prophecy, a belief that goaded him to destroy all the babes of Bethlehem that his soldiers could find.

Why did Christ the King find it necessary to lower Himself to be born among men?  That is the central question, the answer to which converts our attitude toward Christ from reverence for a Divine Monarch into deeply felt love born of joy and boundless gratitude.  The second verse, too often skipped, explains what is at the heart of Christmas.  Here are the words.

Why lies He in such mean estate,

Where ox and ass are feeding?

Good Christians, fear, for sinners here

The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,

The cross be borne for me, for you.

Hail, hail the Word made flesh,

The babe, the Son of Mary.

This little Child would be pierced by nails and spear when He was older but no less innocent.  Why would He submit to that?  Why would the King submit to that?

Among the beautiful carols of Christmas there is one that surely seems odd and out of place. The haunting melody is in significant measure responsible for its lasting popularity, but the words are anything but joyful for a joyful celebration. Rather than recount the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the song expresses the inconsolable sorrow of a mother of Bethlehem mourning the cruel murder of her little child. Popularly known as “The Coventry Carol,” it includes these words:

O sisters, too, how may we do,

For to preserve this day;

This poor Youngling for whom we sing,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day;

His men of might, in his own sight,

All children young, to slay.

The song helps retell when jealous King Herod, fearful of even rumors of potential rivals for his throne, ordered the slaughter of all the children in Bethlehem of two years old and younger. Herod had been advised by the wise men of the birth of the future King of the Jews, in fulfillment of prophecy.  Herod missed his mark, for Jesus was no longer there. Joseph, warned by an angel, had taken his little family away to Egypt.

Among those who take it upon themselves to second guess God there are those who would question why God would save His Son, while allowing all those other children in Bethlehem to be slain. Again, these critics miss the mark. They get it wrong by failing to consider the whole picture.

God the Father did not spare His Son from the slaying of the children at Bethlehem. The unfair and cruel carnage begun in David’s city was finished on Calvary. Jesus’ life was spared only momentarily so that it could be offered as the last sacrifice for all. That seemingly doleful song points us to the full meaning of Christmas as part of a story that winds through Bethlehem and leads through sorrow in Gethsemane to death on Calvary.

Importantly, the story continues on from there to a glorious resurrection morning on the third day. Christ was born to save us, in spite of the evils of the world that He most of all could not escape, a salvation that extends especially to the children of Bethlehem and to all the little children of the world.

I conceive of a day, a moment, when those very men who pounded the nails into the Savior’s hands and feet come personally to realize, come face-to-face with what they have done.  What depth of grief that this knowledge will cause to the hearts of those men—when they become certain of the meaning of those moments in that day—I can imagine in only the smallest degree.  They will be the only men, among the billions who have trod the earth, who with hammers in their fists drove nails into the hands and feet of the Creator and their Savior.  What will that certainty mean to them?

Perhaps the Savior’s plea from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34) will be the beginning of some healing solace when they do know what they personally did.  I suspect that this is not the limit of the mercy that the Savior will extend to these, His brothers, who were so close to the Son of God in this horrible way.

Then I am drawn to consider, how will we feel when our day comes, and it surely will, when we stand face-to-face and see those wounds in His hands and feet?  How will we feel when we come to understand perfectly, as we will, that our own, personal sins made those wounds necessary, that because of what we knowingly have done there was no other way, that we helped to make those nails unavoidable?  More, how will we feel, looking in the Savior’s eyes, when we fully understand that depending on our repentance the suffering that we personally caused was entirely and eternally worth it, or in absence of our repentance for us for naught?  At that moment our joy and our love or our grief and pain will be without measure.

Let us decide now, for we may, to let our loving hearts enthrone Him.  May we decide now, today, that we, when brought into the personal presence of the Savior, will be like the ancient Nephites, who did “bow down at his feet . . . and worship him; and . . . kiss his feet, insomuch that they did bathe his feet with their tears.” (3 Nephi 17:10)

About Wayne Abernathy
I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am the husband of one wife, the father of 5 children, and grandfather of 16 (and counting). In my career I have served on the staff of the U.S. Senate for some 20 years, including as staff director of the Senate Banking Committee. For just over 2 years I was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Institutions. Just recently, I retired from the American Bankers Association, where for 15 years I was an Executive Vice President, for financial institutions policy and regulatory affairs. I am most comfortable at home, where I like to read and write, and at the Temple, where I rejoice in helping to unite families.

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