“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7).
In these simple words, the evangelist St. Luke narrates the birth of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Yet while these words are simple, they describe a most incredible event. In speaking about the incarnation, John tells us “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In a similar manner Paul writes, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
On Christmas Eve, God located Himself in the manger through the means of the flesh and body of Jesus Christ. The baby in the manger was the located means by which God was present in our world. He was Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23).
The incarnation – the “enfleshment” – of the Son of God was something unique and new. But the fact that God was working through the located means of the incarnation had been foretold by His action in the Old Testament. When God established His covenant with Israel, He commanded: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). The tabernacle with the Ark of the Covenant inside of it was the located means by which God dwelt in the midst of His people. Once Israel had conquered the promised land, the temple played this same role (1 Kings 8).
When John speaks of the incarnation and says that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory,” he is taking the language of the tabernacle and temple and applying it to Jesus Christ. He is saying that everything that had been true of these Old Testament located means of God’s presence is now true of Jesus. Jesus said this very thing when He told the Jews who opposed Him, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews were confused by His statement. However John tell us, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:19, 21).
The incarnation of the Son of God for our salvation stands at the heart of the Christian faith. The located means of the incarnation gives us a key insight into the way in which God works. It is the model or paradigm by which we understand God’s saving work. Just as the tabernacle and temple reflected what God would do in the incarnation, so also the Means of Grace in our day reflect what God has done in Christ. They are the located means by which the incarnate One continues to be present for us with His forgiveness and life. We know that Christ and His work is located at the font and altar. We know that this occurs through the means of water, and bread and wine.
The very name “Christmas” underscores this fact for us. The name “Christmas” is a shortened version of the name “Christ Mass.” The term “Mass” was the medieval name for the Divine Service (it is the same term used by the Lutheran Confessions), with the emphasis falling on the Sacrament of the Altar that stood at the heart of the service – the body and blood of Christ present for His people.
Our celebration of Christmas – the “Christ Mass” – reminds us that God who was present through the humble located means of a baby in a manger continues to be present for us through the humble located means of bread and wine. Yet just as the child in the manger was more than met the eye, so also is the bread and wine of the Sacrament. For in, with and under that bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ are present in our midst to eat and drink. On Christmas, we rejoice in the knowledge that the Son of God who was bodily present in the manger continues to be bodily present on the altar for us. He is still, Immanuel, God with us. We receive Him through these located means and in doing so look forward to the day when He will be God with us – not as an infant or through bread and wine – but as the almighty Lord who returns in glory on the Last Day.