Take Up Your Manger? A Christmas Reflection

December 23, 2020

In Romans 6:1–11, Paul draws a brilliant connection between the death and resurrection of Christ on the one hand and the Christian life on the other. Believers die, in a sense, with Christ and also share in His resurrection through the experience of the Spirit-empowered Christian life and, later, through the glorious resurrection. Believers also share in the sufferings of the Messiah. Jesus tells His disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34 NIV; see also Luke 9:23). Paul says that believers “share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ” (2 Cor 1:5), and Peter writes, “Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13).

These links are objectively true, regardless of what we might think or do. But Scripture also complements them with exhortations to take action. We, as Christians, have objectively been given life with Christ, and it is our job to refuse to let sin reign (Rom 6:12–13). Our sufferings are objectively linked with the sufferings of Christ, and it is our job to continue to persevere in faith and to do good (see, e.g., 1 Pet 4:19). All of these exhortations flow from a basic idea of the New Testament: believers must choose to live like Jesus. Paul tells the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1), and John says, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).

As I have been reflecting on Christmas this year, I have been thinking about a connection that is not explicitly drawn in the Bible but is nevertheless intriguing to me. It is the connection between Christ’s physical birth and our spiritual birth. The objective similarities are striking. To start with, both births are wrought by the Holy Spirit and could never be achieved by human activity; Christ’s birth, like ours, was not of mere “natural descent,” nor was it “of human decision or a husband’s will” (John 1:13). Furthermore, both births are remarkable in how unspectacular they are. When the magi asked Herod where they could find the newly born king, Herod did not know whom they were asking about (Matt 2:1–8, 16). The birth, so significant to the history of the world, was entirely unknown to the king because it had taken place in the humblest of manners. Likewise, regeneration does not reveal itself to our senses. There are no roars of thunder or flashes of lightning. Even though there are usually outward acts or signs that simultaneously accompany it and testify to its occurrence, the inward work of the Holy Spirit is itself invisible and silent.

This characteristic of our spiritual birth is so contrary to what people often expect that many do not believe it has taken place, even to them. Many of us can remember a time when, perhaps early in our serious walk with Christ, we worried about the reality of our salvation and tried to secure the new birth through repeated prayers or baptisms or flights to the altar. Yet, even if these later experiences were meaningful in some way, they did not nullify the reality of the new birth wrought by the Spirit of God.

Perhaps we can use the language of sharing and participation for this spiritual birth as well. Christ died, and in being brought into union with Him, we die to sin. Christ suffered, and in our union with Him, we suffer as well. Christ has risen, and in our union with Him, we too will rise. Christ was born through the work of the Spirit, and in being united to Him, we are born spiritually through the work of the Spirit. We could therefore say that, in a sense, we participate in Jesus’s Spirit-wrought birth. Furthermore, since we become truly united to Jesus, the God-Man, who was born of a woman, our life in Christ is objectively connected to the work of the Spirit in the virgin Mary.

Just as the other connections have accompanying exhortations based on the imitation of Christ, this link, I believe, comes with a command. As Jesus embraced the humility of his nativity, so far from the attention and recognition he deserved, we too must sometimes embrace the quietness that exists beyond the hum of spotlights. We who take up the cross and walk to Calvary must also take up the manger—or, to put it more precisely, lie in the manger.

This is arguably one of the hardest aspects of Christ’s life to express in our own. Yes, taking up our cross is very difficult, but sometimes the suffering is mitigated by the knowledge that there is a crowd looking up at us. The agony is real, but at least we are suspended high enough to be seen by others and admired for our perseverance. The manger steers us away from this pitfall of pride. The way of Calvary may involve the sacrifices of pain, loss, rejection, and even physical death, but the way of Bethlehem involves the sacrifice of obscurity.

The Bible and church history give us many people to admire and emulate. We might “dare to be a Daniel” or proclaim with Luther, “Here I stand.” This is surely admirable when done in the right way in the right place at the right time. But perhaps in the church we should also reserve a place of honour for the unknown Bethlehem saints, those who lived and served in the shadows rather than among the crowds, those who were never recognized for their efforts and whose names are long forgotten. At times, I think, God would have us emulate them instead of Luther.

This Christmas season, as we embrace the gift of the incarnate Word, are we willing to follow Him to the manger?

On behalf of the staff and faculty of Emmanuel Bible College, I wish you health, safety, and renewed hope this Christmas season. May you have a peaceful close to this year and a joyful start to 2021.

David Doherty
Messaging & Communications Officer