When did Christmas actually begin? Oh, I don't mean whether the first Christmas was actually on Dec. 25. I mean, when did God the Son become the incarnate God-man?
We all love the Christmas story. The difficult journey to Bethlehem. No room at the inn. The stable animals. The baby in a manger. The surprised shepherds. The angelic choir. The pensive mother, Mary. The proud father, Joseph.
From wooden versions on coffee tables to live versions on church lawns, the nativity scenes will draw world-wide attention again this Christmas. But is that really when Jesus took on human form? At that birth in a Bethlehem stable?
When we read the Christmas story, we usually start with Luke 2. In those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.... Is that how Christmas started? With a governmental decree about taxes?
Or did Christmas actually start about 270 days earlier? The angel Gabriel came to Mary, a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. He said to her, "You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:31-33).
Surely these were some of the most shocking words ever heard by human ears! Mary understood what Gabriel was saying. She would give birth to the Son of God! There was one significant problem. Mary asked, "How will this be since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:34-35).
Yes, Christmas had started, but poor Joseph was still out of the loop until he received an angelic visit in a dream. The angel said, Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20).
Christmas began at the moment of that divine conception! God the Father planned it. God the Holy Spirit planted the fertilized seed in Mary. And God the Son, at that very moment, took on human form. The form of an embryo in the womb. The form of a fetus. Immanuel, God with us, in the uterus of a virgin. Just as Isaiah had prophesied (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22-23). At that moment, Christ Jesus humbled himself and was made in human likeness (Philippians 2:5-7).
So Christmas actually began nine months before the manger scene. Should we put up our Christmas trees in March? No, but perhaps we should consider God's subtle message.
God could have come to earth in the form of a fully grown, bearded man. He could have come as a pimply teenager. He even could have come as a soft-skinned baby. But God chose to come in the form of an embryo. A human fetus. God chose to spend his first nine months on earth as a baby in the womb. Very much alive. Very much human. Very much God.
Our society continues to ask the crucial question, When does life begin? Our medical professionals continue to seek scientific evidence for an answer. Our courts and government continue to debate the legality of abortion. And meanwhile, we celebrate Christmas: God's own statement about the beginning of life at conception.
Jesus was not just born of the Holy Spirit, He was conceived of the Holy Spirit. He did not become the incarnate God-man when he emerged from Mary's womb. He had been such from the moment God touched her.
This Christmas, as you stare at the baby in a manger in your nativity scene, remember that Immanuel-God is with us-began nine months before. God could not have made any stronger statement about the sanctity of pre-born life!
This Christmas, celebrate our God who took on fetal life for nine months to give us spiritual life that lasts forever.
-Jeffrey S. Gangel is the Campus Pastor at Toccoa Falls College.