One of my family's favorite Christmas traditions is setting up the manger scene, which has been in my family for generations. My niece Allie eagerly helps us arrange the different pieces. She studies the placement of every angel and shepherd.
Allie loves to ask questions, and our manger scene usually prompts a few. "Did Jesus get cold?" she will ask. "Did Mary have a blanket to cover Him, or were the swaddling clothes warm enough?" One Christmas, my niece asked a more profound question: "Uncle Alex, why did baby Jesus come?"
"That's a great question, Allie," I said. "A very important one." My mind began cycling through the different possible responses. He came to fulfill prophecy. To display the power of God, yet identify with humanity. To conquer death, defeat Satan and demonstrate that He loves us all.
But before I could answer, Allie asked another question, one that paved the way for the best answer to her first one: "Why did Jesus have to die on the Cross?"
Why did Jesus come? Why did He die? I've always loved the inquisitive minds of children, but my niece asking these questions at the same time presented an interesting mix of innocence and insight. Those two questions really are inseparable. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth to die. And when we help our children understand the reasons behind this mission, Christmas becomes all the more meaningful.
The bigger Christmas story
Every Christmas, families around the world read the story of Christ's birth found in the Gospel of Luke. It's a great tradition, but it's important that we help our children understand the backstory to the events in Luke 2. The full Christmas story begins thousands of years earlier in the Garden of Eden, with the temptation and fall of the first two human beings.
In Genesis 2:16-17, God gave Adam a single command: "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." We soon learn that Adam and Eve, deceived by the Serpent, did eat the forbidden fruit, and God evicted them from the garden. While Adam and Eve did not keel over dead that instant, God told them that physical degradation and death had now become part of the human experience.
By disobeying God, Adam and Eve brought sin into our world. And as a result, a sin nature — or a bent toward evil — was passed on to the rest of humanity. Every human being — from Adam to all of us — is hardwired to follow his or her own will instead of God's.
We are all part of the Fall
Do your children recognize that they share in this sin nature, that they have their own bent toward evil? I think many children (and probably many adults) think of sin and evil as terms that describe someone like Hitler, a drug dealer or their Uncle Leroy who divorced six wives. Help your children recognize that their personal sin nature is not measured against the evils they see on television or in history books, but against the perfect goodness of the Creator. Not one of us matches His righteousness.
God defines sin as selfishness, anger, untruthfulness, and so on. These "minor" sins are as incompatible with His glory and presence as the things that most of us would say are "major" sins, such as murder, robbery, adultery. And when we choose to sin — when we choose our way instead of God's way — we face the same consequences as Adam and Eve: physical and spiritual death and an eternal separation from God.
Our job as parents is to help our kids recognize the simple truth of Romans 3:23: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." When your children begin to recognize their own sin nature, that they themselves fall short of God's glory when they disobey or speak with disrespect or don't tell the truth, then the need for God's grace through Jesus becomes more apparent.
Younger children may need a concrete example of how much higher God's standard for righteousness and purity is than ours. One way to illustrate this is with a cup of sugar. Show your children the sugar as you measure it out, and then pour it into a bowl. Let them dip their fingers in the sugar and taste it. Now add a tiny pinch of salt. Mix it in and let your children taste again. The amount of salt won't affect what they taste, but they still know it's not pure sugar anymore. Explain that, like the salt, our sins — even "tiny" ones that don't seem to be that big a deal — may not be detectible to us, but they are still there, making us impure in God's sight.
Our sin nature is unacceptable to God. But He loves us so much that He wants to help us fix our problem. And that, ultimately, is why Jesus came. God sent His Son as a gift to rescue humankind from sinfulness.
The cost of the gift
One question always seems to surface whenever young children or teenagers begin to grasp the reality of sin: If God really loves us and wants to fix our sin nature, why doesn't He just forgive us? Why did Jesus have to die?
I always tell young people that God takes sin very seriously. As you read and discuss different Bible stories as a family, keep that point at the front of your discussions: God takes sin seriously. Sin is always a serious act against God that requires a consequence.
Hebrews 9:22 puts this in stark terms: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." Before Jesus came, God established a sacrificial system of animals so that people could offer payment for their sins. But these sacrifices were a temporary and incomplete payment. While they symbolically pointed toward the need for Jesus, there could be no final, perfect sacrifice until One came who had no sin nature.
When our kids ask why Jesus died, we can tell them that there was no better option available to God. It was either this or destroying every sinner. But because of His great love for us, God took all of our deserved punishment upon himself.
All of this is probably a longer conversation than what you'll have as your kids set up the manger scene or decorate the tree. But understanding why Jesus came and died is the cornerstone of our faith. It needs to continue to be the foundation of our faith conversations.
Jesus Christ was born for a purpose.
Alex McFarland is the director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University and the author of The 21 Toughest Questions Your Kids Will Ask About Christianity.