If one can get past the inflatable snowmen, tinsel, and wrapped presents, Christmas’ focus is on a baby in a manger. Yet even that is just a meager sign pointing us to the destination of a joy that lasts not for a season, but eternity.
The coming of the Messiah was prophesied as including a virgin birth in the town of Bethlehem. But it was just a sign.
We marvel at the thought of an angelic host singing over the shepherds. It’s easy to fixate on the helpless babe in the manger; it’s pleasant to think of a cooing child smiling at the visiting wise men.
But our months-long preparations for Christmas are a lot like standing on the roadside for hours admiring the “distance” marker to our destination. The view might be nice, but it’s not where we’re going.
To fully appreciate Christmas, we must travel less than 10 miles from Bethlehem to the city of Jerusalem. We’re not going inside the walls of the Old City, though; our first stop is the place known as Golgotha. To meaningfully understand the baby in the manger, we must also see Him as a man hanging from a cross. But not just hanging on a cross — many died in such a manner under the brutality of the Romans. What made this Man so important is that He rose from the dead afterward.
Two places, a 15-minute walk from each other, vie for the title of the burial site of Jesus. One has close to a millennia of history on its side; the other has a geologic formation and a pristine tomb. At one place, you can feel the millions of pilgrims who have visited the site; at the other, you can see how it must have looked that first Easter.
The significance to both places isn’t what is there, but what is not. That baby in the manger became the Son who, after hanging on a cross until dead, was buried, conquered death on our behalf, and then rose to take His place at the right hand of God the Father.
The joy of Christmas is but a foretaste of the joy of Easter and eternity hereafter. Baubles and trinkets under a tree will perish, but the gift of salvation through the risen Christ lasts for eternity.
As Isaac Watts wrote:
Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns:
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.