How Jesus’ Birth Makes Us Think About Death (and why that’s a good thing)

Here in the U.S. we celebrate the lives of some well known people in our history by declaring their birthdays national holidays. For instance, early in the year we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and we remember Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on Presidents Day. These three people are notable for their accomplishments and for their roles in shaping the nation in extraordinary ways.

Christmas is different. Most people within the U.S. recognize Christmas more for the gift-giving aspect than for marking Jesus’ birthday. The retail industry counts on the fact that purchasing a gift for someone is necessary and promotes the holiday with relentless intensity. Fewer and fewer people note that Christmas is related to Jesus’ birthday.

How Christmas is Different

Of course, we really don’t know if December 25th is the actual birthday of Jesus. But we mark his unusual birth by gathering on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to read the narratives of the amazing events that occurred around the time of His humble birth.

The narratives of Jesus’ birth mean something special for Christians because of the rest of His story. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr. or President Abraham Lincoln, Jesus did not have a massive impact on the nation of Israel. After Jesus died, Israel carried on pretty much in normal fashion until A.D. 70 when the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed.

The birth narratives remain important because they are the beginning of the story that ends with Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection. It is likely, had these events not occurred, that there would be no need to celebrate Jesus’ birthday if he died a normal death and remained in the tomb.

Sickness, Death, and Christmas

As I write this, the family of my friend, John, is counting the final breaths of their beloved  husband, father, grandfather, and friend. John is rich in faith in Jesus as his King.

John has ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Slowly and methodically his body has deteriorated. First, his legs didn’t function as they should have. He needed a wheelchair. Then, eventually, his speech was affected. Soon after that, he was not able to eat. In the last several months, only his eyes had deliberate movement.

In order to communicate, John uses a device that is linked to eye movement. His eye movement enables him to choose letters on an electronic screen. Then the device speaks the words he has entered. When I began visiting John, he was able to ‘speak’ through this wonderful device. It wasn’t easy; it was tedious. We knew that he was thinking and his mind was very much engaged in what was going on. He compiled a library of messages that he played for his family at Thanksgiving. They all laughed and cried ‘hearing’ him.

My role was to be his pastor. He and his wife asked me if I would visit on a regular basis. Of course, I said, ‘Yes’. I enjoyed my visits with John. We talked about the mundane things of life, like caring for their yard and about the beauty of the autumn colors. We also talked about his future. He knew his body was useless. He knew he was marching to his death.

He had some fear. But he also knew about Jesus’ work on his behalf and about the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. He also wanted to know about a future ensured by Jesus’ resurrection. I spoke to him about the promised future when he will meet the Lord after his body fails. We also talked about the bodily resurrection of Jesus and what that meant for him. He would weep when I would talk of the New Heaven and New Earth. I reassured him that he would have a body like Jesus’ resurrected body. John was used to activity. Now he couldn’t move.

What a joy it was to speak of his future ability at the Day of Resurrection when Jesus returns. All things will be renewed. He will walk, run, and enjoy a new human existence that is fully human in a way none of us can fully appreciate now.

Now, just before Christmas, John will enter the presence of the Lord. His family will grieve. They will grieve with hope, however. Yesterday his daughter was begging that her father could leave his emaciated body and go to be with the Lord.

Jesus Birth and Death

The day we celebrate Jesus’ birth has meaning because of His death which started a revolution. His death started a revolution which is validated by Resurrection Day, Easter. The resurrection appearances and the physical nature of Jesus’ body point forward to the Day when all things will be made new. The description in 1 Corinthians 15 indicates what kind of body we shall inherit. We shall have the same kind of body Jesus has.

The day we celebrate Jesus’ birth has meaning because of His death that started a revolution. Click To Tweet

Jesus’ present existence is a bodily existence at the right hand of the Father. This idea is full of mystery.

In Surprised by Hope, Wright helps us think about the mystery of Resurrection this way:

This new body will be immortal. That is, it will have passed beyond death not just in the temporal sense (that it happens to have gone through a particular moment and event) but also in the ontological sense of no longer being subject to sickness, injury, decay, and death itself. None of these destructive forces will have any power over the new body. That indeed may be one of the ways of understanding the strangeness of the risen body of Jesus. The disciples were looking at the first, and so far the only, piece of incorruptible physicality.

During Christmas, we remember Jesus’ birth. But Jesus’ birthday is marked around the world by people who look forward to His death and resurrection.

This new body will no longer being subject to sickness, injury, decay, and death itself. Click To Tweet

A Christmas Prayer

In some ways, that means that Christmas helps us look forward to a time when there will be peace and joy in ways that we can only slightly taste now in comparison to the Day when all things are renewed. In that day my friend’s body will be renewed as well.

By the time you read this blog, John may already be in the presence of the Lord. John and his whole family hope not in Christmas, however, but in the promise of Easter. Please pray for his family.

They hope in what Jesus’ birth points to: bodily resurrection reality. We all should remember Jesus’ humble birth, cruel death, and glorious resurrection. The revolution began and will culminate in full New Creation.

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David P. Seemuth

David Seemuth is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Center for Christian Study and coordinates seminars and classes. He and Prof. N.T. Wright collaborate in online course development. David has been an Adjunct Professor at Trinity International University for over 25 years and teaches in the area of Biblical Studies, specializing in the New Testament. He also served as an Associate Pastor at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, WI for 33 years.

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One Comment

  1. Tarnya December 20, 2016 at 5:45 pm - Reply

    I appreciated your emphasis on the bodily resurrection. It seems that the Bible says our hope is in Jesus’s resurrection (1 Thess 4:13 ff) as an example of what will happen to us (and what was achieved by his death and resurrection. The hope is not the sleep, since without the resurrection, we have no hope.

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