I moved to Rexburg with my family about ten years ago from Egypt, the place of Jesus’ childhood. I was just a short day’s drive from Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ death and birth that we celebrate tonight and tomorrow. Living in such a place gives you a very different view of history. It seems almost part of the American tradition around Christmas that some national magazine runs a story on its cover saying: Was there really a Jesus? That’s because our country is only 200 years old, so anything older than that seems impossible to really know. But I lived in a country where you could read about people, by name, from 5000 years ago. And in the place where Jesus came as a boy to pyramids that were already 2000 years old! The question: “Was there really a Jesus?” is just the wrong question.
I have walked those streets, wandered the little paths around Galilee and Bethlehem. And those opportunities often left me with a question: Why? Why did Jesus Christ come to earth, born in a barn, persecuted and put to death. Why did God come like this? The greatness and mystery of God, the great Creator, suddenly found himself embodied as a little child, humbly born. Why?
The first Why? of Christmas, for me, is what put all of this plan into action? Why was there a plan of salvation in the first place? We learn at least part of the answer in the Book of Abraham, chapter 3. Abraham was shown all the creations and all the planets, being told: “These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.” Remember that by intelligent we aren’t talking about IQ tests, but light and truth. God was full of light and truth, and we were not–are not. God’s intention was to make all of us like him. Why? Because he loved us.
He didn’t have to do all this, I suppose a being superior to all others could use his power to dominate and destroy. But God’s choice was to love us, to provide a way for us to become like him–full of light and truth. Or as he stated to Joseph Smith, he chose his work “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” He did this because, as John put it, God is love. So the first answer to Why?, Why the plan? is: LOVE.
To get to the second why, we have to set the stage a little bit. So the plan was put into action, we found ourselves on earth to be tested, tried, and see if we would prove that we wanted to fulfill God’s plan in our lives. The first of us were Adam and Eve. How did they do? Not so well. They disobeyed God’s commandments, and not just that first and famous one that got them kicked out of the garden. They simply failed to live perfectly.
King Benjamin reminds us that this is the state we all are in: Beggars to God and unprofitable servants. Many of the great saints of all ages despaired about their failure at living up to what they know to be true. Moses exclaimed “Man is nothing!” Mormon wrote that we are all less than the dust of the earth. Paul mourned that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” He knew well from his own past filled with sin and rebellion.
We may try, but we will fail. Welcome to human life. But this leaves us in a really difficult position–what are we to do? Well, this brings us to the second WHY of Christmas. Christ came because without his help we have no hope. When she was young, one of our daughters, just 9 years old, told me that they had been discussing the kingdoms of glory in primary. She said to me, “I can’t make it to the celestial kingdom. You know me Dad, I do a lot of things wrong. Sometimes I even do them on purpose.” She was right, of course, but not all the way. She was right that on her own there is no hope. But there is hope, because Christ came, was born as a little baby in a manger in a crowded little town.
So the second Why? Is why did Christ need to come? And the answer is because we need him. Without him we cannot make it. And why did he come, why was he willing to stoop to be born onto the earth he created? Love. And why did his Father allow him to come, to suffer, to die? The answer to this, as you might guess, is Love: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”
As you know, this part of the plan was not an easy task, even for a God. Jesus struggled, was reviled, was abandoned even by his closest friends. When facing the terrible moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, he, God, shrank. But for love, he followed his part of the plan and paid our admission price to Heaven.
The other answer to the question of Why did Christ need to come? is to teach us the Way. He said that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We learn God’s nature from the way that Christ lived. And how did he live? He “went about doing good.” He loved. Often as I walked those streets I imagined Jesus walking there and being petitioned by a sick, lame or blind person. Or, as he was once, approached by a leper “beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me bclean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.”
He spent time with those that everyone else had rejected, the sinners, the prostitutes, the possessed, the tax collectors, the “non-members,” the sick, the lame, the lepers. I’ve been around lepers, devastated by their disease and so outwardly deformed by their illness. And I have been around those who are so morally sick that their souls seem riddled with leprosy. Christ spent time with those people. If we are to follow him, we are to do the work he would do.
In contrast with the Law of Moses’ commandment to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, Christ gave what he called a “new commandment”: That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” So this is the way that people will know we are followers of Christ, if we love as he loved. Not how we dress, not how much money we make, not how many minutes we read our scriptures every day–but by love will all men know (and Christ, too) that we are followers of Christ. The second answer, then, to Why Christ came is to teach us to love.
Are you getting the theme here? The answer to every question, to every “WHY?” of the Gospel and the celebration of the birth of Christ is Love. That’s the whole thing. Love will lead us to all the other things we consider important–like prayer, service, missionary work, temple work, reading scriptures–and without love all these actions are worth nothing. In other words, you could check all the boxes and it will not be enough without love.
Paul put it this way and I hope that you’ll forgive me for putting this in everyday words rather than the formal scriptural language: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Or, in other words, even if I pray for three hours a day, read the scriptures once through every month, go to the temple every day, go on seven missions, and have not love I am nothing, I gain nothing. This was the problem for the Pharisees. We like to think of them as the bad guys, but they weren’t. They were the ideal example of exact obedience to rules. We love talking about being perfectly or exactly obedience, but it is not enough, because without love it is all noise–a tinkling cymbal.
Why? Because love is the whole reason for everything; for the plan, for the coming of Christ, for his suffering, for the church, for families. The answer to the reason for Christmas is to celebrate the love of our heavenly parents in putting forth a plan to save us, the love of Christ to suffer for our sins, and the love we have for and from others. Notice that every single day of the church’s Light the World campaign was based on teaching us to love, not just in word but in deed and truth.
If you want to celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees and lights, that’s fine. But if the stress and strain of the secularized holiday make you lose sight of the purpose, get rid of them. The real purpose of Christmas is to celebrate the love of God and Christ in our lives. The only gift that will really matter to those around you is the gift of love you offer to them. Your family members and friends need your love. The stranger, the poor, the hungry, need your love–all year, not just every December. The answer to every WHY is love.
In speaking of the last days before his second coming, Christ said that “the love of many shall wax cold.” We see so many people suffering in the world for a lack of love, in our community, in our nation, and in the world abroad. This is how we can know if we are following Christ, being his disciples, “if we have love one to another.” So amidst all of the tinsel and mistletoe, don’t forget that love is the whole thing, without it everything is just a spiritual winter.
* I gave this talk in the Christmas Eve service at my church on Dec. 24, 2017. Since I wrote it to give as a talk, it might be a bit rough in spots. And I don’t have any of the scriptural references cited, since I needed the words and not the references for speaking. It should be easy enough to search out those phrases if you want to find the scriptural reference.