It’s a Christmas Miracle: Baby Jesus and the Forgiveness of Sins
Holiday movies are happy-ending feel-good affairs. Christmas is saved. Santa arrives. Gruff people discover the “true meaning of Christmas.” And everyone finds true love. It’s always, as my niece and nephew say with faux wonderment, “a Christmas miracle.”
Christmas is, of course, a miracle. But it’s not quite the miracle most people have in mind.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI addresses the declaration the angel made to St. Joseph: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
The name Jesus means, “The Lord is salvation.” Israel had been looking for salvation for ages: salvation from the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, tyrannical King Herod, the Romans, from poverty, sickness, famine and despair. Forgiveness of sins had to do with the sacrificial system at the Temple in Jerusalem. So they kind of had that covered.
Then the angel came to Joseph. Pope Benedict comments: “The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses on God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.”
Jesus and the Paralytic
Benedict goes on to discuss the story of the paralytic whose friends broke through the roof to lower him at the feet of Jesus (Mark 2:1-12). His need seemed obvious: he was a paralytic. “Child,” said Jesus, “your sins are forgiven.”
Once again, it’s too much and too little. Too much, thought some: “It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Too little, thought others: the paralytic was still a paralytic.
Years ago there was an ad for something that proclaimed, “When you’ve got your health, you’ve got just about everything.” An author named Augusten Burroughs added to that, “When you have your health, you have everything. When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all.”
Most people would agree. But Jesus, who healed many, vehemently disagrees.
Presented with the paralytic, Jesus fulfilled the mission the angel announced to Joseph. He also healed the man, but that was a proof. He did it “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (v. 10). The paralytic’s health and with it his financial and social status were, for Jesus, secondary.
After all, the healed paralytic lost his health and is long dead. Once he could walk, his earning ability and social status improved, but didn’t last.
Jesus Was No Utopian
Yes, health is good. Material prosperity is good. National liberation is good. Education is good. Science and scientific progress are good. But we need to keep in mind that they’re all secondary goods.
G.K. Chesterton quipped, “The weakness of all Utopias is this — that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of smaller ones.”
Jesus was no Utopian. He understood that sin, and with it separation from God, is “the greatest difficulty of man.” We can live with bad health and, in fact, sooner or later most of us will — and then we’ll die. We can live without an abundance of this world’s goods. We can live in dangerous conditions and under oppressive regimes.
But without the forgiveness of sins, we are, as the late Dr. Paul Toms used to put it, “without God in this world and without hope in the next.” Even if we are healthy, prosperous, safe and free, we have nothing of lasting value.
The Real Christmas Miracle
As Christmas arrives and 2020 comes to a close, my fear is that we have bought the lie that our health is the highest good. We’re certainly acting as if it is. And many of our Christian leaders have, I assume unwittingly, encouraged us in that belief.
The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops assures that we have a moral obligation to receive the COVID vaccine. It’s “part of our moral responsibility for the common good.”
While I don’t disagree, that same august group has done away with a moral obligation to attend Mass on Sundays. Is it not part of our moral responsibility for the common good to hear the Word of God and receive Christ in the sacrament — so we can “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” without which our neighbors are stuck with spiritual disease and eternal death?
Or have we simply stopped believing that? Or, has physical health become the higher good, not to be risked for something as ephemeral (and trivial?) as the faith?
Physical health is a great blessing, not real treasure. We will either find that laid up in Heaven or we will not find it at all. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
The angel made it clear to Joseph, and Matthew makes it clear to us: Jesus was born to save His people from their sins. This is our highest good and — Glory to God! — the real Christmas miracle. Accept no substitutes.
Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”