During the Christmas season many churches will have a wayside poster proclaiming ‘Jesus – The reason for the season’. Despite having some theological reservations about the statement I will concur that Christmas is a season and a season with purpose.
The birth of Jesus is, no doubt, the most joyous and celebrated of all holidays in our culture. Families get together, gifts are exchanged, and a good time is usually had by all. Even people who know or believe little about Jesus celebrate together. However most people think of Christmas as a singular event and when it is over, it is over until the same time next year.
Although the birth of Jesus was a momentous event, it was not a singular event. Jesus’ coming has deep roots in the religious and cultural tradition of the Jewish people; and the fact that God – Emmanuel came in the form of Jesus has had a profound effect on human life that show no sign of abating even after two thousand years.
The season that we call Christmas began thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. The Messiah had been expected for a long time. Ever since the Jewish people got into so much trouble that they realised their condition was beyond human help, they had been expecting divine intervention into human affairs in the form of a messiah. Their expectation of a coming messiah was intense but also intangible. Mothers prayed that their unborn would be a male child, and that he would be the Messiah. The expectation of the coming was not casual, like expecting a white Christmas, it was heart rending and visceral.
When times were good the expectation was less intense. Like most of us they did not feel the need for divine assistance when they were getting on quite well by themselves. The intensity of expectation was in direct proportion to the degree of national and personal difficulty they were experiencing at any given time. But, the expectation was always there, albeit at times in the background. When times were tough, they expected the imminent arrival of divine help. Like present-day Christians, when in trouble, the first words out of their mouths were: “Dear God, where are you?” It became increasingly obvious to them, as it does to us, that God’s timetable does not necessarily correspond with our timetable.
Crises came and went and no messiah. False messiahs came and went. In every age there are religious charlatans who exploit for their own selfish purposes the simple faith of the naive and desperate. There is always a following. People who live in the zone of desperation will grasp at any straw of hope and help.
There were many widely divergent concepts of what the Messiah would be like when he came. For the most part their hopes and dreams tended toward a political and religious “strong man,” a warrior-like messiah who would destroy the enemies of Israel and restore Israel to the power and splendour of the reign of David. They never dreamed that the Messiah would come when and as he did. Only Isaiah came close with his “suffering servant” who would be a light to all nations, and this was a fragmented glimpse that had little ideological support by the Jewish people (Isaiah 53). The Messiah is on his way! The time is drawing near that the hope of the ages will be fulfilled, but in a most unexpected manner.
Of course we would not have mistaken the truth of the Messiah, but how many people today yearn for a revived ‘messianic’ church which is full, wealthy and powerful.
The epicentre of Christmas is the birth of Jesus. Even those who know nothing but the solitary fact of his birth can be blessed by the event, but blessing and insight await those who know how it all came to pass. No one puts it all together in such a fetching story as Luke. Luke takes the loose ends of strange and obscure events occurring in the lives of the most unlikely people and leads us unerringly to Bethlehem, a stable, and the manger in which the newborn Messiah was laid by a wide-eyed teenage mother as a puzzled, but faithful, Joseph looked on.
Again Luke’s nativity began before the birth in Bethlehem. It is Luke, with his scientific mind, who tells us that in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (which she had kept secret), an angel appeared to a teenage girl named Mary and informed her that she would bear a son without benefit of an earthly father, who was to be called “Jesus.” The angel informed Mary of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, her kin. So, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary came to visit. When Mary greeted Elizabeth the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These two women share a secret that the world has waited long to know. As they revel in what they have come to know, Mary speaks a song of praise that has more to do with her unborn son than herself. It is Mary’s song. We call it “The Magnificat,” from its Latin name.
The song thanks and praises God for including her in this unfolding divine drama. As Mary sings of the power of God, we can read what she says to be the power to be exercised by her unborn son. It portends a revolution and a reversal of present reality. This is the most comprehensive statement of liberation theology in the Bible:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:51-55)
We look around the world today and realise that Mary’s prophecy is still to come to pass. Like our Jewish ancestors who looked for the coming messiah we hope and yearn for this new messianic world.
Do not give up hope, Christmas isn’t over yet!
Christmas blessings, Alan.