Why was Jesus Christ born into our world? A few reasons have been reflected on but there is one that few theologians will disagree with.
Christmas is the supreme revelation of God’s “philanthropy.” That is, of God’s love (philea) for man (anthropos). It is a love that is shown by active participation in the other. Immanuel, “God with us”, he entered into our embodied world.
The human condition of being a “slave” to our body is no trivial matter. In my years of ministry, I have witnessed the terrible struggles that take place between a person and their body – in illnesses, addictions, mental disorders, and sexual struggle. That body traps a person also in his or her family and social circle, whatever joys or ills that may bring. It is a wrenching attempt to hold on to life itself through a body whose very limitations seem to hold us in thrall.
Through the centuries, the sheer ubiquity of the struggle often led to desperate attempts at ridding ourselves of all bodily attachments. In Jesus’ time, there were various religions and philosophies that were devoted to this idea: stoicism, pythagoreanism, various kinds of gnosticism and so on. St. Paul referred to some of these. The point was not only to tame the body, but to develop a mind and attitude that could somehow decouple itself from the body and its realities – through ascetic discipline and contemplation and so on, so that a person could achieve “peace” and “calm” – ataraxia as some called it.
It is not so different today. Even though we like to think of ourselves as being in control of our bodies in some new way, our anxieties, our medical manias, our clothing and fashion obsessions still show us who is master. The sexual struggles and addiction to drugs of our present globalising culture are the epitome of this: where our body masters us, restless and leading us away from any stable vocation in the world. St. Paul still cries out, with continued resonance: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
Such is the love of God, that unlike other human philanthropists, He did not just give generously. He Himself entered our world of wretchedness. Looked at from one perspective, it was a tragic life. He was born into an unstable environment, that marked pretty much the rest of His life, even if the romantic idea of Christmas festival may conceal that. A perfect human being who loves, gives and sacrifices for others. Yet He was betrayed and abandoned by those He loved. He endured a violent and shameful death.
Why? Paraphrasing, John 3:16, because He loved us so much that He became like us that we may not perish in our bodily wretchedness but find real life, now and forevermore.
God had shared in our human condition and showed us the way to freedom through His Son.