For all the attention given to Christmas, it is not the most significant day for those of the Christian faith. That designation belongs to Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. But for Christians there is a very important element embodied in Christmas, having to do with the incarnation. Almost as soon as I became a Christian, I was forcibly struck by this realization: In terms of Christian theology, Jesus could have appeared on Earth at 33 years of age and been crucified in order to wash away the sins of man. But the Gospels tell quite a different story, one in which God entered the world through a poor child born in a manger. He lived among us, took part in our joys and sorrows, healed the sick, developed friendships, experienced betrayal, and wept. In the Garden of Gethsemane his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.

This is not the portrait of a distant God, detached from the affairs of this world or of our lives. Like the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament is the story of a God who put a premium on human relationships, who understood struggle and temptation, who decided to make Himself part of the story. It is an account of compassion (literally to “suffer with”) and grace, of sacrifice and love. And it isn’t a story, by the way, that anyone from that time could have ever anticipated. The idea of the Creator of the Universe not only taking on human form, but willingly giving up position and rank to walk among us rather than to rule over us, simply wouldn’t have computed. A triumphant king, perhaps; but not a suffering servant. A crown, yes; but never a crown of thorns.

And yet for Christians this is precisely what unfolded. God comes down from the heights of heaven to the dust and discomfort of Earth. It was not always a pleasant or easy journey — but it was, for reasons that are impossible for us to fully fathom, a necessary one.

That is why the story of Christmas is riveting, a great drama played out on an earthly stage, involving a beginning and an end, featuring birth, death, and conquest over death, with God as the protagonist as well as the author of history.

If the story is true, it really is the greatest story ever told.