In this series, Caleb Friedeman explores some of the unique dimensions of Luke’s Christmas story. The purpose of this series is to provide fodder for fresh preaching, teaching, and application of Luke’s birth narrative, so please, borrow at will. See here for part one.
A Lonely Christmas
In the first part of this series, I suggested that many Christians are plagued by “the problem of the nativity.” That is, like the typical nativity scene, the Christmas story we know is a composite of elements from both Matthew’s and Luke’s stories of Jesus’ birth, which are in fact quite different. When we combine these two narratives before understanding them in their own right, we miss out on much of what each evangelist was trying to communicate.
However, there is a second problem that plagues the Church’s relationship with Christmas: the problem of compartmentalization. Each year as the Advent season draws near, impassioned debates ensue regarding when it is appropriate to begin playing Christmas music. Conventional wisdom seems to say that one may play holiday tunes after Thanksgiving, but others say December 1. Still others want to kick the date back to the beginning of November, and a few try to play Christmas music year round—much to the chagrin of their friends and family. This is not simply a debate that affects Rudolph and the chestnuts roasting on an open fire; it also pertains to sacred music: Worship leaders who play “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in the middle of July are likely to raise more than a few eyebrows in the congregation. In short, whether one turns on the Christmas tunes in November or December, most of us seem to recognize that Christmas music is a special sort of music appropriate for one to two months per year.
Unfortunately, many of us treat the Christmas stories the same way we treat Christmas music: We relegate them to a special category and give them our attention for a month or two each year. However, when isolated from the rest of their gospels in this way, the Christmas stories lose much of their meaning. As a result, many of us have difficulty connecting Christmas with the rest of Jesus’ life, let alone the rest of our lives. Fortunately, Matthew and Luke did not write stand-alone birth narratives. Rather, they meant for their birth stories to be read in concert with the rest of their work. Luke in particular sees his story of Jesus’ birth as being intimately related to the life of the Church.
The Birth of Jesus and the Birth of the Church
Luke seems to see the Holy Spirit as being significant to all of Jesus’ life, even his conception. When the angel Gabriel tells Mary of the child she will have, Mary asks how this will be possible, since she is a virgin (Luke 1:34). Gabriel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Gabriel’s promise that the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary corresponds to another promise of the Spirit in Acts, the sequel to Luke’s gospel. In the opening chapter of Acts, Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus is, of course, referring to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that will bring the Church into being. The Greek verb here for “come upon” (eperchomai) is the exact same verb Luke used with Gabriel and Mary above (Luke 1:35). In fact, Luke 1:35 and Acts 1:8 are the only places in the entire NT where the Holy Spirit is said to come upon (eperchomai) someone/thing.
All of this is no mere coincidence. Luke clearly sees a parallelism between the Holy Spirit’s action in the conceptions of both Jesus and the Church. This much is clear. But what does the parallelism mean, and how does it inform the life of the Church today? Fortunately, Luke has not left us to our own devices to answer these questions. Indeed, as his narrative unfolds he points us to the significance of these two Holy Spirit conceptions.
Jesus as New Adam and the Church as New Humanity
We begin with Jesus’ conception: Why was Jesus born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit? Much ink has been spilled over the question, and this is not the place for a full answer. However, we can say with confidence that at the very least Luke sees Jesus’ virginal conception as an event of new creation. This is evident on the surface level—a virginal conception is something that only God can accomplish. However, Luke also points us to this conclusion through the genealogy he provides (Luke 3). Whereas Matthew begins his genealogy with Abraham and walks forward to Jesus begat by begat, Luke begins his genealogy with Jesus and traces his lineage back to Adam, the father of all humanity. However, Luke goes a step further by saying that Adam himself was the [son] of God (the Greek does not actually have the word “son”). Luke, then, sees Jesus as a new Adam, the head of a new creation.
And what does this new Adam do? In a sense Luke’s whole gospel is an answer to this question, but we would be hard-pressed to find a better summary than the one Jesus himself gives at the outset of his public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to send out the oppressed in liberty, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19). Using the language of Isaiah 61, Jesus proclaims himself as God’s Spirit-anointed agent of redemption in the world. Clearly, for Jesus the Spirit was not only the initiator of his existence, but the one who empowered, sustained, and defined his mission.
This sketch of Jesus’ identity and mission in Luke provides a paradigm for interpreting the parallel Luke has set up between Jesus’ conception and the Church’s conception. If Jesus is God’s Spirit-conceived new Adam, the foretaste of a new creation, the Church is God’s new race that manifests a new way of being human. If Jesus is God’s Spirit-anointed agent of redemption, the Church is a Spirit-anointed community of redemption—proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom, speaking liberty to the captives, and declaring sight for the blind. One coming of the Holy Spirit launches the mission of God’s Messiah; another coming of the Holy Spirit inaugurates the mission of God’s people in the world.
The Spirit’s Conception of Jesus and the Church and Why It Matters
So much for Luke’s story of the Holy Spirit conceiving both Jesus and the Church. But what does it mean for us? I offer these three points for consideration:
- Christmas does not fit in our box. Although for many of us Christmas has become an end in itself, for Luke Christmas was never just about Christmas. It was never something to be put in a box in the attic and then unpacked and set on a pedestal for one or two months per year. If we read closely, we will find that Luke is telling us quite explicitly that Jesus’ birth is woven in with his life, death, resurrection, as well as the ongoing life of his Church (also initiated and sustained by the Spirit).
- Christology informs ecclesiology. Key to Luke’s programme is the understanding that Jesus’ life and identity are formative for the life and identity of the Church. As Acts unfolds, we see Peter, Paul, and the other early Christians following the pattern of Jesus’ life in a new and unprecedented set of circumstances. Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit is relevant for every day of our lives because it reminds us of our mission: to follow in our Lord’s footsteps as a Spirit-filled community of image-bearers, renewing and redeeming creation.
- Our need for the Holy Spirit. In both our churches and our personal lives, it is so easy to lapse into thinking that we are self-sufficient. The virginal conception of Jesus and the equally virginal conception of the Church by the Spirit remind us of our utter dependence on God. Like Jesus, the Church was not born of the will of a man. Also like Jesus, the life of the Church will not be sustained merely by human will. We need the Spirit to continually dwell in us and empower us for the mission of God in this world. When our calling begins to seem daunting (and it will), we should remember Gabriel’s words to Mary (“For nothing will be impossible with God”; Luke 1:37) and turn to the Spirit for strength and guidance.
Questions for further study:
- What other connections can you find between Luke 1–2 and the rest of Luke-Acts?
- In what ways does Jesus’ whole life (birth to ascension) form a paradigm for the life of the Church?
Image attribution: mikosca / Thinkstock