Among all the other wonderful blessings of Christmas, at its core, this season is a celebration of the gift of life through the birth of a baby. Of course, any time a baby is born it’s a glorious event worthy of a decent party. My wife and I have 4 children, and our friends and family have greeted each birth with joy and excitement, and rightly so.
Every birth reminds us of the mystery of life and the gift of our created world. This person who is sleeping in my arms was non-existent only a year ago. In a small way, each birth reflects the original creation story as a movement from non-existence to life. God graciously spoke the world into existence from nothing and, upon assessment, considered it very good. Each life points us to this reality and gift. However, if every child born reminds us of the grace of the created world and physical life, then the birth of our Lord should bring us to rejoice in both the original created order and the new creation. In fact, we cannot grasp the joy of the new creation, brought by the birth and work of Christ, without a proper knowledge of its connection to the original creation.
The apostle John makes this connection explicit in the opening chapter of his Gospel. He writes that the Word “was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Later in 1:14, he says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Why is it so significant that the one who created the world out of nothing came to earth and dwelt among us? To ask this another way, how will making this connection between creation and new creation through the incarnation help us to truly appreciate Christmas and the gift of life we’ve been given?
To help explain this relationship, I’d like to enlist the help of the fourth century bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria. No doubt Athanasius is most widely known for his staunch defense of the deity of Christ and the Trinity against Arianism; yet, I’d like to draw from one of his earlier works, On the Incarnation, to help us this Christmas season.
Creator and Creation
Athanasius begins his argument on the importance of the incarnation by pointing out what we have already been discussing. It matters immensely that the same Lord who spoke the world into existence at creation should take on the form of a servant and come in the likeness of men. He wrote:
We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.1(18)
The fact that the Word of God who came in the flesh is the one who created the world is significant, but it’s also necessary to rightly grasp the manner of creation. God did not use pre-existing matter to construct the world as a foreman builds a house. Instead, God spoke the whole of creation into existence out of nothing but his Word. Every plant, animal, ocean, and mountain was made by the power of his voice. At the very height of creation God placed mankind—made in his image and given the ability to know and love Him. Athanasius describes this capacity as true life and a gift: “He reserved especial mercy for the race of men” (20).
Creation and Fall
Having been given the gift of physical life from non-existence by the Word, God placed mankind in the garden and gave them one prohibition so that they might “continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise” (20). The choice was open to the human couple:
If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. (20)
Sadly, we live in a world where the tragic results of that first couple’s choice still reverberate today. When mankind sinned in Adam, the process of death began to undo the work of creation and plunge mankind into a spiral toward non-existence as we were cut off from the source of true life, the Creator God. Athanasius explains:
For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. (21, italics mine)
The Divine Dilemma
The rebellion of mankind against God was more than a simple wrong decision that could be repented of and moved beyond. In turning from the author of life in rebellion, mankind turned to corruption and non-existence. Of course (from our perspective), this appears to put God in a dilemma. Here’s how Athanasius describes the apparent problem:
It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. (24)
So, what was God to do? His beloved and high point of creation, his image bearers, were corrupted in nature. His love for His creation was too great to leave humans to descend into further death, disarray, and disorder. However, he could not simply step around the sentence of death pronounced in judgment over sin. The judgment of death handed down for sin was not arbitrary. Humans were created to draw life from their Creator and to be sustained by his fellowship and under his authority. His Word is life, and to reject that Word is to turn from existence to non-existence and to utterly forsake that which is true life.
The heart of the divine dilemma lay in the rejection of life—and of existence itself—by humanity. God’s people had turned from true life to seek life in themselves, and thus began their descent into death and destruction. What could possibly bring them out of death and into life? What could reverse the course from non-existence to existence? Only the one who had originally given life. Only the true Word of God—who spoke creation into existence out of nothing—could bring life out of death. And so, he must go to the world he created and to the people he loved and take a human body in order to bring them to life.
The Incarnation Brings Life
Here is the point where we begin to fully grasp the reason the same Word who created the world had to be the one who became man to redeem the world.
This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption and make the alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. (26)
Throughout John’s Gospel, we read about the life that comes through the Word who became flesh. In John 1:4, immediately after John tells us that all things were made through him, we read that “in Him was life.” In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, to true life, which only comes through believing in him. In John 5:21, we read, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” And finally, in John 11:25–26, Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
If Athanasius is correct, then all these passages describe the great reversal brought into the world with the birth of Christ, bought by the death of Christ, and secured by his resurrection. Christ’s birth was the key moment for which creation held its breath. By becoming man and entering the world, he could bring true life to those sitting in the shadow of death. Only the one who created the world could once again give life to the world.
Celebrating the Gift of Life
For us, this means the celebration of Christmas is a chance to recognize and rejoice in true life. We were created to enjoy God and fellowship with him. True life is found in him. Sin took that away through death and destruction, and the incarnation reverses course by bringing life to us. John 17:3 puts it like this, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” At Christmas, we are celebrating the chance to do what humans were originally created to do: live with God.
What’s so magnificent about the gift of life brought through the incarnation is what it tells us about God’s initiating love. Our greatest need was to be pulled out of the death spiral of sin, yet, we had no way of doing that on our own. The incarnation, perhaps more than any other moment in history, shows us that God pursues, seeks, and loves what he has made. He came. He showed up. He took on the form of a servant. In him was life, and he brought that life to us. He rescued us from death and decay when we could not rescue ourselves.
This Christmas, let the freely given gift of life, brought to us through the incarnation of our Creator, bring us to gratitude and joy.
 Athanasius (2018). On the Incarnation (A Religious of C.S.M.V. Trans.) Louisville, KY: GLH Publishing Company.