It used to be bother me a little bit when I would see Nativity scenes from other countries that depicted Jesus as being of the same race as that country–in a Chinese painting Jesus looked oriental, in an African portrayal Jesus was black, or for that matter, in a German or Scandinavian portrait Jesus looked like a blue-eyed European. It bothered me because the Christmas narrative is a true story, real history, and Jesus is a middle-eastern Jew. To depict the Nativity in some other way seemed to me to be making it into a bit of a fairy tale that we can mold and shape and change to fit our desires and needs. But the account of Jesus’ birth is no myth. It doesn’t belong in the same category as flying reindeer and all the fantasy that has become so much a part of our culture’s Christmas holiday. The Christmas narrative is for real. Luke emphasizes that point by even giving you some of the historical details about who the Caesar was and the census and the tax and who the governor of that region was at that time. The Christmas story is an actual, literal account about the real Jesus and His birth.
And yet the more I think about it, the more I believe that those paintings may have it right, at least in this sense: The angel came with the message of good news for all people, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The Savior Jesus is born to you, for you; He is yours. He’s your kind, humankind. When the Son of God took on our human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, He did not just became a man. He became man. He took all of humanity into Himself in His incarnation. For He came to bear the sins of all humanity in His body. That includes every nation and race and people and language. Though Jesus was indeed a Jew, His birth reveals the truth that there is in fact only one human race, the fallen children of Adam. And in this newborn baby in the manger, every sinner is redeemed and restored to God. Jesus is the embodiment of all people from every corner of the globe, and in His body all people are put right with God again.
And so when Jesus is portrayed as African or Oriental or European, theologically speaking that’s true. By becoming man, Christ becomes one with all people to deliver all people. The Savior is born to you, for you. He’s one of you, your very flesh and blood, your true human brother. There’s no one that’s left out of the new life that comes from His holy birth. He’s like you in every way, except without sin, that you might become like Him in every way and share in His divine glory.
(The rest of this 2007 Christmas sermon can be accessed here.)