An ancient Christmas: The offspring
Every year around Christmastime we are reminded that there is a good segment of the wider Christian community that vociferously objects to the celebration of Christmas. They point out that the birth of Christ is nowhere celebrated in the Bible or in early Christian literature. They argue that Jesus was demonstrably not born in late December. But the proverbial cherry on their argumentative cake is the undeniable historical fact that, long before it was celebrated as Christmas, 25 December was observed by pagans as Saturnalia (a festival in honour of Saturn) and Sol Invictus (the birthday of the sun god Mithras). It was not until the fourth century that Christians started celebrating the day in honour of Christ’s birth, and only in the sixth century that Christmas was officially recognised as a Christian holiday.
The argument is that Christmas has clear pagan roots (much like Halloween—and much the same argument is also made regarding Easter), and should therefore not be celebrated by Christians.
The truth of the matter, however, is that Christmas has far deeper and far more ancient roots than either Saturnalia or Sol Invictus. To be sure, the date in late December is quite clearly not the day on which Jesus was born, but the promise of Christmas was, nevertheless, humanity’s earliest hope. Prophecies of the incarnation are scattered throughout the Old Testament.
The earliest prophecy of Christmas was given right at the dawn of human history, and is recorded in Genesis 3. God had created Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden, filled with everything they needed. He gave only one restriction: Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They disobeyed, and so the human race—and the entire creation—came under a divine curse. But that very curse became the basis for the promise of the incarnation.
When God confronted Adam and Eve because of their sin, he pronounced a curse on all three parties involved in the fall: the serpent (Satan), the woman (Eve), and the man (Adam). It is in the serpent’s curse that the first promise of Christmas is found.
The reason for the incarnation
“The LORD God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.’” (Genesis 3:14). This verse tells us why the promise of Christmas was necessary: because of the curse. All creation was cursed, but the serpent was cursed “above all” the rest of God’s creation.
The serpent’s curse is instructive for the Christmas promise. The emphasis of the serpent’s curse is not “on your belly,” but “dust you shall eat.” Eating dust is symbolic in Scripture of utter defeat (Micah 7:15–17). So thorough would the serpent’s defeat be that he is seen eating dust even in the restored creation (Isaiah 65:17–25). Unlike the rest of creation, the serpent’s defeat was total and irreversible.
The revelation of the incarnation
But the text goes on to enumerate the means by which this total defeat would take place: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Here is the first revelation of Christmas.
The identity of the “offspring” is somewhat cryptic here (though it is certain that “he” is an individual), and certainly Adam and Eve did not know who the promised offspring was, but the New Testament applies the language of crushing the serpent to Jesus Christ (Romans 16:20). And while the text give a great deal of detail on the identity of the offspring, there are some significant features seen here.
First, the offspring would be the offspring of the woman. This is significant in the Bible, which tends to identify people as the seed of their father. There is, perhaps, a hint of the virgin birth here: that the offspring would have no earthly father, but would instead be the seed of the woman.
Second, the offspring would wage war against the serpent. We see this in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry. At one point, Jesus portrayed himself as entering a strong man’s house and plundering it. The strong man, in that context, was Satan. When he came to earth, Jesus took the war to the forces of darkness. In fact, it was his victory in that war that served as proof that the kingdom of God had come (Matthew 12:25–30).
Third, the offspring would be severely wounded in the battle. The serpent would strike the offspring’s heel, resulting in fatal injury. This was indeed fulfilled when Christ died on the cross. The wound that he suffered was death. His death was because of sin—not his own sin, to be sure, but the sin of those whom he came to save. The war waged against the forces of darkness cost him his life.
Fourth, the offspring would triumph. His heel would be crushed—but in the process he would crush the serpent’s head. This brings us to the final consideration.
The result of the incarnation
The promise of Christmas is a promise of victory: “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). At the very moment in which he believed he was victorious—the moment he struck the offspring’s heel—the serpent would suffer defeat. The curse would be turned into eternal blessing. The offspring would prove victorious, crushing the work of the devil. Yes, he would suffer great loss in the process, but in the end he would emerge the victor.
Of course, Christ’s victory over Satan was accomplished at the cross, not in the manger. It was at the cross, when he died, that Satan struck Christ’s heel. Victory cost Jesus his life—but only temporarily. The resurrection proved to be the decisive act. In the resurrection, Christ displayed his victory. The power of Satan had been trampled underfoot. The victory was won at Calvary.
But, of course, victory at Calvary would have been impossible apart from birth in Bethlehem. In order for the offspring of the woman to attain victory, he had to first be born. And ever since the promise of victory in the garden, humanity anticipated the coming of the offspring who would crush the head of the serpent.
For centuries following the fall, Jewish women lived in hope that they would be the one to bear the promised offspring. As history marched on, and the curse continued to weigh down on humanity, and the war between the woman’s offspring and the serpent’s offspring continued to rage, the only hope of victory was the one anticipated offspring.
And then one day, in an obscure village in first century Palestine, a peasant girl heard these glorious words:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end…. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
(Luke 1:30–33, 35)
The twenty-fifth of December may have been celebrated by pagans long before it was celebrated by Christians, but the promise of Christmas is far more ancient than Saturnalia or the fabled birth of Mithras. The promise of Christmas stretches back to the dawn of time. And apart from Christmas—apart from the incarnation of the promised offspring—the victory of Easter would be impossible.