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Why we are given pictures
of the Lordís conception and birth

by Rev. Grant H. Odhner

The gospel of Mark opens with Jesus' coming to the wilderness of Judea to be baptized by John in the Jordan. There is no mention of the Lord's conception, birth or upbringing. The gospel of John alludes in a cryptic way to the Lord's conception and birth: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God .... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1,14).

The gospel of Matthew tells us about the Lord's conception and birth, but offers very little detail about the infant Lord Himself. We learn of Joseph's predicament (whether to take Mary to wife). We learn of events - such as the coming of the magi, Herod's response, the escape to Egypt. But we are not given any picture of the Lord, nothing that presents the Lord as a real baby, conceived and born into the world. The gospel of Luke is unique in giving us this kind of visual image.

Consider these words from Luke, and think of what they do for our concept of the Lord. The angel Gabriel says to Mary: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you: therefore ... that Holy thing which is to be born of you will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35, emphasis added).

Here we have a picture of the Lord in the womb! - that "Holy thing which is to be born." So, again, when the newly-expectant Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth: "And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she spoke out with a loud voice and said: ĎBlessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! "' (Luke 1:41 f, emphasis added).

Again, an explicit reference to the Lord in the womb. And, finally, consider how profoundly these next words affect our idea of the Lord Jesus Christ: "So it was, that ... the days were completed for [Mary] to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger" (Luke 2:6f).

These words do more than tell us the facts about the Lord's conception and birth: they recreate the events. They don't do this with elaborate description and detail. They do it in a very simple way, in a few brief scenes, using words sparsely, yet using them in such a way that our imagination can readily form from them a sensual picture. We can think of the Lord as a tiny embryo, a holy creation, a fruit of the womb. We can think of His tender infant body brought forth into the world as other human beings. His infancy becomes real for us as we think of Him handled by His first-time mother: she wraps Him up in swathings to keep Him warm and lays Him with great care and awe in a soft manger resting place. The Luke account gently but surely leads us to visualize and contemplate the Lord's birth in this way.

But why? Why didn't the Lord leave this part of His life a mystery? (He certainly left many other aspects of His life a mystery.) There are a number of reasons.

First, it is central to the Christian faith that God became Man; or, to put it another way, that Jesus Christ was God Himself incarnate (in the flesh). The story of the Lord's conception and birth conveys something essential about both the Lord's Divinity and His Humanity.

Less essential but profound nevertheless, the picture we have of the Lord's first tender states conveys an inexpressible sense of hope and joy and peace. It does this in a way that no other event in Scripture can. Surely this fact alone makes Luke's account important.

Let us look more closely at these points: first, at how our picture of the Lord's conception and infancy contributes to our concept of His Divinity.

Who knows what strange theories and myths might have been hatched had we not been specifically told of Jesus' conception from Yehowah and birth by Mary? What might not people have conjectured about His origin had we been told only of His adult years after age thirty? Being Divine, perhaps He had just appeared "ready made." Perhaps He had come from a different planet. Or been miraculously born of animal or plant.

Such ideas, and others still more frivolous, would have done violence to our idea of Jesus as God-Man. They would have distracted us from seeing His clear Divinity and Humanity. They would have distracted us from seeing the purpose of His coming and the nature of His work of salvation.

Jesus was conceived of God. His soul was Divine. It was not a human father but the "Holy Spirit" that "came upon Mary" and "the power of the Most High" that "overshadowed" her. Therefore also "that holy thing" that was born of her was called "the Son of God." His future destiny was possible only because of His Divine conception. Yehowah's promised salvation could be understood only in the light of this fact. For it was only from the Divine within Him that the Messiah could overcome the powers of hell. His love for our salvation had to be God's love; otherwise He would not have the power to persevere nor to accomplish such a cosmic reordering of that vast world of the human mind. Nor could we have faith in His Divinity were it not for our knowledge of His true origin.

But Luke's testimony about the Lord's conception and birth is equally vital to understanding His Humanity. Jesus developed in the womb and entered into the world as a helpless, ignorant infant. This fact helps us see that He went through the same process of physical and mental growth that we do (even if He did go way beyond where we stop). In becoming flesh to save us, the Lord respected His own order and worked by His own creative wisdom (see TCR 89). Luke's picture helps us see that Jesus was not fully Divine to begin with. He became Divine by a process. And this process was a vital part of the way He saved us.

"You must be born again," the grown Jesus taught. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3). This truth applied equally to Himself during His life in the world, no less so in His first hours of life in the human, as He lay warmly swaddled in the manger in that infant state of consciousness as dim as the night enveloping Bethlehem. The Lord had been "born of the flesh." And so it was necessary that He be born again "of the Divine Spirit." Indeed, we are taught: "[The Lord] was born of the virgin Mary ... as another man; but when He was born again, or became Divine, it was from Yehowah who was in Him ... as the very being of [His] life" (AC 2798:2).

Jesus was born again by the same order that we are. And in this we see His real Humanity, His connection with us. By this we may come to see and know Him as our Savior and Friend in a way we otherwise could not. After all, it is not merely His human shape that makes Him a meaningful object of our faith and love. It is our appreciation of His love and wisdom as they work in an arena that we know: natural states of the human mind. He had to pass through gradual stages of learning and enlightenment, of obscurity and waiting, just as we must. He dealt with the forces of evil, negativity, and doubt that we experience. He met these states with truths and insights which we too can come to know and use in our struggles. He trod the path that we are treading.

Why did the Lord offer us pictures that lead us to think of His conception, womb life, and birth? We have seen how they help convey to us something essential about His Divinity and His Humanity. But I mentioned a third reason: namely, we derive from them an inexpressible sense of hope and joy and peace.

Why is this? Why does our largest and most joyful religious celebration center on Luke's story of the Lord's birth?

The Lord's birth, like all births, was no more than a promise of what was to come. It was not in His birth that He saved us, but in His rebirth. His humanness (as we have noted) was not Divine at birth. His inner Divinity had practically nothing in that infant-mind by which it could work, nothing by which to exert its power. Yet the fact is, at Christmas we are touched by a joyful perception of the Lord's Divinity, and of the meaning of His whole work of salvation!

What is at work here is the power of innocence. Think of it: infants hold an incredible power of attraction. They demand to be the center of all that approaches and touches their sphere. This aura around babies is a Divine aura. The Lord is strongly present because there is nothing there to drive Him away. The infant has no greed or ill will or hatred, no lust for possessions or for control over the lives of others, no concerns that can pull it out of the tranquil stream of the Lord's life and protection. The sphere of hell cannot yet approach. It cannot excite the child's hereditary tendencies toward selfishness and evil. Hell cannot work in the child until his or her mind has been sufficiently developed and furnished with knowledge, since knowledge is the means by which evil can operate and exert its influence (see AC 1573).

By virtue of this strong sphere of the Lord's presence, infants inspire a special kind of hope and delight. This hope and delight are strengthened by the fact that infants are pure potential. They have done no evil, incurred no guilt, inflicted no wounds, shattered no dreams, and closed no doors. In every infant one can behold a happy ending. One can gaze upon the purpose of creation: the human angel, lovable, innocent, at peace. One can reflect on what lies at the end of the child's "long haul" without being distressed and distracted by all of the specific difficulties that he or she will surely experience along the way. There is a great sense of hope and joy in this perspective, a serene and unclouded hope and joy.

We can see from this why there is such power in celebrating the Lord's salvation at His birth! - why there is such power in Christmas!

The heavenly hosts who sang out the tidings of great joy at the Lord's birth were not weighed down with the darkness and oppression that were dominating the spiritual world even as they sang! They were not crushed in spirit by the doubt and pain that both they and the newborn Lord would surely face! They hailed Him "a Savior," "Christ the Lord," as though salvation were an accomplished fact! They sang of "peace on earth" and "good will toward men," even though these things were but a future hope. For in the powerful sphere of that "Holy one" just born, they felt this hope as a reality! In the glow of His infancy, they could behold the end in view, clear and sure!

We too tend to feel this kind of unbounded hope at Christmas. We experience moments of simple excitement, brightness, and optimism that are rare indeed in our lives (which can become so weighed down with work and cares and concerns). We feel an optimism about our own salvation - not in a self-conscious way, but in the sense that we get swept up in the joy of others. We feel others' joy as joy in ourselves. In the Christmas season we sing to the Lord (both literally and figuratively) with greater delight and spontaneity. We behold in Christmas our end-in-view - a state of heaven, a state of giving and receiving, a state of working together for common ends and playing together in the Lord's sphere.

Let us thank the Lord for sharing the joy of His holy conception and birth with us! In reflecting on them we can better understand His Divine work of salvation and His special Human connection with us. And through these sweet pictures of His eternal infancy He can inspire us with a renewed hope and sense of His innocence and peace - the end and purpose of His coming.

"Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord .... Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!"

-New Church Life 1998;98:531-536

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Pictures of the birth

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