As the celebration of Christmas fast approaches, our attention quickly goes to the familiar words of the infancy narratives found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This is a healthy reflex. After all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ rests upon the historicity of the events that took place in Bethlehem as Christ was born. Our understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ is directly rooted in these narratives and our confidence is in the fact that Matthew and Luke give us historically credible and completely truthful accounts of the events surrounding the birth of Christ.
A closer look at the narratives in both Matthew and Luke reveals a richness that familiarity may hide from us. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Christ, demonstrating the sequence of generations as Israel anticipated the birth of David's Son - the Messiah. Luke, intending to set forth "an orderly account" of the events concerning Jesus, begins with the anticipation of the birth of John the Baptist and then moves to tell of the virgin conception of Jesus.
A careful reading of Matthew and Luke reveals both the elegance of detail and the grand expanse of the story of Christ's birth. Matthew gives particular attention to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The virgin birth, the birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea, the Herodian massacre of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, and the role of John the Baptist as forerunner are all presented as the fulfillment of specific Old Testament prophecies.
Every word of the Old Testament points to Christ. He is not only the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies concerning him, he is the perfect fulfillment of the law and the prophets - the entirety of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Christmas story does not begin in Bethlehem, for Israel had been promised the Messiah. As Luke reveals, Simeon beheld the baby Jesus in the temple and understood this infant to be "the Lord's Christ" - the Davidic Messiah. Simeon understood this clearly - the Christmas story did not begin in Bethlehem, or even in Jerusalem.
So, where does the Christmas story begin? In the Gospel of John we read: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made." [John 1:1-3]
The prologue to John's Gospel points to creation and to Christ, the divine Logos, as the agent of creation. Yet, with language drawn directly from Genesis, John begins his gospel "in the beginning."
In other words, the Christmas story begins before the creation of the world. As we celebrate Christmas and contemplate the Christmas story, we must be very careful not to begin the story in Bethlehem, or even in Nazareth, where Mary was confronted by Gabriel with the message that she would be the mother of the Messiah.
We must not even begin with Moses and the prophets, and with the expectation of the coming Son of Man, the promised Suffering Servant, and the heralded Davidic Messiah. We must begin before the world was created and before humanity was formed, much less fallen.
Why is this so important? Put simply, if we get the Christmas story wrong, we get the Gospel wrong. Told carelessly, the Christmas story sounds like God's "Plan B." In other words, we can make the Christmas story sound like God turning to a new plan, rather than fulfilling all that he had promised. We must be very careful to tell the Christmas story in such a way that we make the gospel clear.
Christmas is not God's second plan. Before he created the world, God determined to save sinners through the blood of his own Son. The grand narrative of the Bible points to this essential truth - God determined to bring glory to himself through the salvation of a people redeemed and purchased by his own Son, the Christ. Bethlehem and Calvary were essential parts of God's plan from the beginning, before the cosmos was brought into being as the Son obeyed the will of the Father in creation.
The Christmas story does not begin in Bethlehem, but we appropriately look to Bethlehem as the scene of the most decisive event in human history - the incarnation of the Son of God. Even as we turn our attention to Bethlehem, we must remember that the story of our salvation does not begin there. That story begins in the eternal purpose of God.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God." That is where the Christmas story begins, and John takes us right to the essence of what happened in Bethlehem: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." [John 1:14]
Let's be sure to get the Christmas story right, start to finish.