The liturgical cycle in the life of the church typically focuses its attention on Holy Week. The death and resurrection are the centerpiece of salvation history and are essential for our forgiveness and life. Without these events, we are lost in our trespasses and sins.
In the early church, however, the Incarnation of Christ was as big a topic as His death and resurrection. That God could be born in the flesh was something of much debate. Many theologians who followed the Greek philosophy prevalent at the time questioned how this could be possible and often rejected the idea entirely. Thankfully, a number of theologians also spoke up in defense of Scripture’s own description of Jesus as truly being God in the flesh.
Leo the Great, a theologian during this era of heresy and debate, said:
Accordingly let those men cease their complaints who with disloyal murmurs speak against the dispensations of GOD, and babble about the lateness of the LORD’S Nativity as if that, which was fulfilled in the last age of the world, had no bearing upon the times that are past. For the Incarnation of the Word did but contribute to the doing of that which was done: and the mystery of man’s salvation was never in the remotest age at a standstill. What the apostles foretold, that the prophets announced: nor was that fulfilled too late which has always been believed. But the Wisdom and Goodness of GOD made us more receptive of His call by thus delaying the work which brought salvation: so that what through so many ages had been foretold by many signs, many utterances, and many mysteries, might not be doubtful in these days of the Gospel: and that the Saviour’s nativity, which was to exceed all wonders and all the measure of human knowledge, might engender in us a Faith so much the firmer, as the foretelling of it had been ancient and oft-repeated. And so it was no new counsel, no tardy pity whereby GOD took thought for men: but from the constitution of the world He ordained one and the same Cause of Salvation for all. For the grace of GOD, by which the whole body of the saints is ever justified, was augmented, not begun, when Christ was born: and this mystery of GOD’S great love, wherewith the whole world is now filled, was so effectively presignified that those who believed that promise obtained no less than they, who were the actual recipients.
Leo the Great, “Sermons,” in Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Lett Feltoe, vol. 12a, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895), 133–134.
While we look ahead to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, but God has already done something in the Incarnation that has never been seen before. God has joined Himself to human flesh. God now dwells in that personal and special way with His people and suddenly the end is finally in sight. Now, as Leo says, our faith is not in some distant and far off god who cares little for us, but a God who cares enough to be willing to be born into the world. Our faith now has a personal focus as the world sees the face of its Savior.
This changes the context of our worship. Throughout the rest of the liturgical year we celebrate a world where God has come to dwell with us and this marks everything the liturgy. Christ has come to us to establish a personal relationship with His people and everything we do from that point forward is with the awareness that Christ has come.
This is why the Nativity narrative sets the tone for the church and our life. It is the first great turning point in the story of salvation, where God does something that will never be undone and will always be true. We still look forward to Christ’s death and resurrection, but these things only have meaning because Christ was born. And from that point forward and forevermore, Christ will always dwell with His people.