I think it is interesting that the Book of Mormon leads with the Christmas story. Eleven chapters into the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi is given a long vision regarding the mission and ministry of Christ, hundreds of years before Christ’s miraculous birth. He is guided through this revelatory journey by an angel, referred to as “the Spirit of the Lord.” The Spirit opens the vision with “a most beautiful and fair” virgin in the City of Nazareth and asks Nephi: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (1 Ne. 11:16).
Nephi clearly has no idea where this vision is going and pleads ignorance: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” (1 Ne. 11:17). The Spirit then explains that this virgin is “mother of the Son of God,” and he proceeds to show key events from the ministry of Christ, referring to these collectively as the “condescension of God.”
Condescension in our current common usage means acting superior to someone else, but that is the exact opposite of what it means here. As used in 1 Nephi, the term evokes the idea of someone descending from a higher place in order to be with, or serve, people at a lower level. The “condescension of God” refers to the willingness of the great Jehovah to come to Earth in a physical body, not only to experience all of the difficulties of mortality, but to suffer in a degree unknown (and unknowable) to any other person. It is the center not only of the Christmas story, but of all of Christianity: God came to mortality to be like us so that He could share our experiences, comfort us, and ultimately redeem us.
Modern scripture provides additional witnesses to the reality of the birth of Christ and gives greater depth to its meaning. Near the middle of the Book of Mormon, Alma adds his own witness of the still-future birth of the Savior and its purpose:
And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.
(Alma 7:10-13). I will never fully understand why Bethlehem inexorably led to Gethsemane, but the two are inseparable. The condescension of God was Christ’s willing sacrifice to descend from the greatest of heights to the lowest of depths in working out an infinite and eternal atonement for his wayward children.
In a revelation given to Joseph Smith during a very low place in his own life, the Savior rehearsed a litany of hardships that Joseph had suffered or would soon pass through, concluding this catalog of calamities with the somber reminder: “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:8). Indeed, because of the condescension of God, there is no depth to which we can sink that the Lord cannot reach to save us. No matter where we have gone, we can find Him there waiting to rescue us.
In the darkness of a Bethlehem night, He who was omnipotent came to earth as the most vulnerable of creatures, an innocent babe in a stable. He who was Omniscient would be required to learn precept by precept. He who held power over death would deliver himself up to be crucified.
I don’t know that we can ever fully appreciate the condescension of God, but we can at least understand and acknowledge that it was an act of supreme love by our Savior. While we spend our days doing our best to avoid the discomforts, hardships, and pains of mortality, He came to mortality with the express purpose of experiencing them all so that he could perfectly succor His people. That is a gift that we can hardly comprehend, much less match.