‘Tis Better to Receive at Christmas
Pastor Scott Murray sends out daily e-mail devotions, which are well written and thought provoking. If you want to get on his mailing list, just drop him a note at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s a recent one that I thought offered a great insight into the meaning of Christmas. Perhaps you will too.
One of the pious truisms of our culturally-normed celebration of the “holiday season,” is that “it is better to give than to receive.” That’s true as far as it goes. Perhaps such a thing should be taught to children to ward off greed and to encourage human sympathy in their self-centered little hearts. But that is certainly not the meaning of the Nativity of Christ our Lord, who takes human flesh so that the eternal Word could give Himself to us. For us, Christmas is about getting, not giving. It is far better to receive than to give. Christ comes not to receive from us, but to give to us all that we need to be lifted up from our depravity and the fear of death. Christ Himself had no need of being exalted (Phil 2:9). What glory could be added to the King of Glory? How could the One who is exalted far above all heavens in His own nature as the true Son of God, also receive exaltation in time? How could He be higher than the Highest (Lk 1:32)? Such progress as He received in time, He received according to His human nature born of the Virgin Mary, and that not for His own sake, but rather for ours.
His humiliation in time happened according to His human nature, and yet because of the personal union the person of God’s Son was humbled. He undergoes this humbling in our human flesh to raise our flesh out of its fallen condition and to seat us in heavenly realms with Him, so that we can be with Him where He is (Jn 14:3). Here is what Athanasius meant by “deification:” that Christ transferred these enormous divine gifts through His assumption of our humanity in time, so that what happened in His humiliation resulted in our exaltation.
While the term “deification” sounds blasphemous on our western ears, Athanasius exhibited a crystal clear grip on the “for-us-ness” of the humiliation and exaltation of Christ our Savior. The great exchange is on his mind, even if not on the tip of his pen. We are in Christ so that what is His becomes ours. Perhaps Athanasius is groping for words to express this gift of exaltation from the Savior hitting upon “deification.” It is a groping attempt to show how exalted we have become through the exaltation of the Christ Child in the incarnation. That it was what we are given through the incarnation and there is nothing better to be gotten. It truly is better to receive than to give. At least from Jesus.
“How is Christ exalted (Phil 2:9), if before His exaltation He is the Most High? How did He receive the right of being worshipped, who before He received it, was ever worshipped? It is not a dark saying but a divine mystery. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God;’ but for our sakes afterwards the ‘Word became flesh’ (Jn 1:1, 14). And the term in question, ‘highly exalted,’ does not mean that the essence of the Word was exalted, for He was ever and is ‘equal to God’ (Phil 2:6), but the exaltation is of the manhood. Accordingly this is not said before the Word became flesh; that it might be plain that ‘humbled’ and ‘exalted’ are spoken of His human nature. For where there is a humble state, there too may be exaltation; and if because of His taking flesh ‘humbled’ is written, it is clear that ‘highly exalted’ is also said because of it. For this is what man’s nature needed, because of the humble state of the flesh and of death. Since the Word, being the image of the Father and immortal, took the form of the servant, and as man underwent for us death in His flesh, that thereby He might offer Himself for us through death to the Father; therefore also, as man, He is said because of us and for us to be highly exalted, so that as by His death we all died in Christ, so again in the Christ Himself we might be highly exalted, being raised from the dead, and ascending into heaven, ‘where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf’ (Heb 6:20; 9:24).
“If now for us the Christ is entered into heaven itself, though He was even before and always Lord and Framer of the heavens, for us therefore is that present exaltation written. And as He Himself, who sanctifies all, says also that He sanctifies Himself to the Father for our sakes, not that the Word may become holy, but that He Himself may in Himself sanctify all of us, so likewise we must take the present phrase, ‘He highly exalted Him,’ not that He Himself should be exalted, for He is the highest, but that He may become righteousness for us, and we may be exalted in Him, and that we may enter the gates of heaven, which He has also opened for us, the forerunners saying, ‘Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in’ (Ps 24:7). For also here the gates were not shut on Him, for He is Lord and Maker of all, but because of us is this too written, to whom the door of paradise was shut. And therefore in a human relation, because of the flesh which He bore, it is said of Him, ‘Lift up your gates,’ and ‘may come in,’ as if a man were entering; but in a divine relation on the other hand it is said of Him, since ‘the Word was God,’ that He is the ‘Lord’ and the ‘King of Glory.’ Such our exaltation the Spirit announced beforehand in the eighty-ninth Psalm, saying, ‘For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted’ (Ps 89:17). If the Son is righteousness, then He is not exalted as though He was in need of exaltation, but it is we who are exalted in that righteousness, which He is (1Co 1:30).”
Athanasius of Alexandria, Four Discourses Against the Arians, 1.41