Birthdays

The so-called “War on Christmas” is overwrought on both sides of the culture war divide. Social conservatives go on and on about “taking the Christ out of Christmas” and dutifully remind one and all that it is Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays. Social liberals, meanwhile, act like it’s a perfectly acceptable compromise to rename Christmas trees “holiday trees” and banish the very mention of anything to do with Jesus Christ from school celebrations. If Bill O’Reilly’s annual call to arms is ridiculous (and smacks of desperate populism), the political correctness of “tolerant” liberals is as well.

Nevertheless, this time of year the birth of Jesus is kind of a big deal. We celebrate it in ways we don’t even realize — Christmas hymns, if not as ubiquitous as they once were, are heard throughout department stores. One can still catch on network television “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which timelessly explains that the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is the real meaning of Christmas. Nativity scenes have not lost their popularity. Jesus’ birthday, so to speak, is celebrated as much as ever.

Recently I spent 10 days in Germany. It was something. It was great to reconnect with old friends, visit old churches, and see historical sites. One of the places we went to that was most powerful, for me at least, was the World War II concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. The Holocaust was an example of pure evil, proof that Satan is real and that humans are capable of awful, terrible things. Bergen-Belsen was a concentration camp, not a death camp, so there were no gas chambers there. Even still, due to poor treatment and awful eating and drinking conditions, more than 100,000 people died. That number included Soviet prisoners of war, Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other dissidents. Just an awful example of carnage. These people weren’t freed until April 15, 1945, by the British.

As I was walking through the museum, I spotted some biographies and testimonies of those forced to stay at Bergen-Belsen. I picked up one at random and read this on one of its pages: “Those who survived will always remember April 15, 1945 as their second birthday — in many ways more important than their first.” It was their second birthday because they were saved. They were freed from the awful torments of the Nazis.

It’s a wonderful passage, a wonderful thought. We celebrate birthdays every year because being alive is a good thing. How awful it must have felt staying in this concentration camp. Certainly there are some who fought back, who resisted, who tried to run away. By and large, however, these attempts were unsuccessful. Some historical scholarship has shown that enduring these conditions has a dehumanizing effect. To live in such squalor, to be treated as sub-human, has a great effect on one’s psyche. So you try to cope. You create dialects of your own, cultures of your own, small ways to rebel. However, the brutal mistreatment combined with a gnawing sense that life is over does something to you.

Now imagine going from this terrible captivity to liberation. It is glorious. It is worthy of being celebrated. It is a second birthday — as the author of that passage says, in many ways more important than their first, because they thought they were lost. They thought they were dead. But now they are alive.

As wonderful as this thought is, theirs was not an eternal salvation. It was only temporary, earthly, imperfect. They still had to deal with the scars, emotionally and physically, of the horrors they experienced.

Just as God’s chosen people, the Jews, have experienced such suffering, persecution, and death, so has God’s son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was beaten. He was mocked. He was betrayed by his closest friends. He was abandoned by his people. He was whipped. He suffered the awful punishment of the crucifixion, the punishment of a criminal. It was a particularly awful form of punishment. You don’t die by simply hanging there — you die by asphyxiation, by losing the strength to be able to lift your body to breathe. He died and was buried. And the part that wrecks me the most is this passage from Mark 15:33-34: At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. Then at three o’clock Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This isn’t merely symbolic language that Jesus is using. God the Father actually abandoned the Son. Jesus was forsaken by his Father, with whom he had the closest of relationships. Jesus was God’s unique, special, favored, honored Son, whom he loved, yet he abandoned him in his greatest hour of need. Why? Why would God do this? What reason would God have for forsaking his Son?

His reason was to save us. Jesus was forsaken so that we did not have to be. And when he was resurrected, he defeated death for all time, paving the way for us to experience everlasting life. To have a second birth.

1 Peter 1:22-25 says this: You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart. For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. As the Scriptures say, “People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades. But the word of the Lord remains forever.” And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.

Because of Jesus, we have the opportunity to have a second birthday. We have the chance to be saved from the consequences of our sin. And this salvation is not temporary. It is eternal. It is heavenly. It is perfect.

Merry Christmas.

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