December 25, 2011

The real meaning of Christmas

Isaiah 9, Isaiah 11, Isaiah 12, Jeremiah 31, Luke 2, Revelation 21, Revelation 22

This is the time of year when many people pull out the Bibles they have ignored all year long in order to read the nativity story in the second chapter of Luke. They are joined by pastors, preachers, deacons, Bible-study teachers, theology students, and ordinary Christians everywhere who read their Bibles daily and on this day, open it to the second chapter of Luke for the same reason. Although in much smaller numbers, there are even some Atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindis, Animists, and followers of religions both great and small who borrow a Bible, read over a friend's shoulder, or look up the second chapter of Luke online in order to read along. Granted, there are billions who will not read Luke today, there are also billions of others who will and not all of them are believers.

All of those billions upon billions of Christians and non-Christians who take this day to read that one chapter are missing the real point. Yes, Christmas is the celebration of Christ's birth, the redeemer of Israel, the savior of us all, but in the grand scheme of God's vision, Bethlehem and even Cavalary are but footnotes in an ongoing narrative beginning in the distant past and ending in the far future.

Prophecies concerning the messiah are scattered throughout the Jewish Torah. Some are so obvious everyone who reads the Torah acknowledges them as true prophecy, others are so deeply shrouded in metaphor and symbol that no two theologians from any Judeo-Christian religion in the world can ever quite agree on what they mean. The two key prophecies that Jewish and Christian theologians alike mostly concur on as being messianic in nature are Isaiah, chapters 5-11 and Jeremiah chapter 31. These two prophecies came about in opposition to one another, not in unity, and it was only after Christianity became a major force in the Jewish world that scholars and casual readers alike began to link them together.

The history of the Kingdom of Israel is not easy to provide exact dates for, mostly because record-keeping in that era was not an exact science. Generally, the founding of the Kingdom of David is set at around 990 B.C., the division into Israel and Judah in about 850 B.C., and the final dispora in about 585 B.C. In about 750 B.C., Judah and Israel both knew an Assyrian invasion was imminent. Different nobles, educated merchants, and literate peasants began to circulate through the land attempting to rally the people to prepare for this invasion. Some preached submission, some preached rebellion, some preached martyrdom. Two of the most important prophets were Isaiah in the court at Jerusalem and Jeremiah who roamed through the Judean countryside. By the similarities in their surviving works it is apparent to any honest reader that these two men knew of one another and even influenced one another's prophecies. Both agreed that the coming Assyrian invasion was punishment for the growing sensual, materialistic nature of their societies and the casual acceptance of idolatry. Some of their prophecies deal directly with issues we still face in today's world. For example, Isaiah 8:11-18 is particularly relevant:
This is what the LORD says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:
“Do not call conspiracy
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it.
The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread.
He will be a holy place;
for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.
Many of them will stumble;
they will fall and be broken,
they will be snared and captured.”
Bind up this testimony of warning
and seal up God’s instruction among my disciples.
I will wait for the LORD,
who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob.
I will put my trust in him.
Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.

As I compose this entry the North American and South American continents are celebrating Christmas Day, 2011. Europe has just finished her celebration and Asia is already finishing work on Monday. Despite the violence and enthusiasm of the "Arab Spring" and "Occupy Wall Street" movements, so far the "World Revolution" sought by collectivist and anarchist agitators everywhere is pretty much a non-event with little historical relevance. A few dictators lost their lives, thousands of protesters spent a night in jail (many of them more than one!), a great deal of damage was done to public structures, but the overall social and political impact has been negligible. Considering the goals of the more extreme leaders and advocates, this ineffectiveness is probably something to be grateful for. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even Yeshua (Jesus Christ) himself were political agitators of a sort both different from and similar to the protesters that have torn through cities all around the world over the past two years.

Foreseen by Isaiah and Jeremiah (among others), Yeshua was born into this world on a cold winter's night. Luke tells us that his parents were headed to their hometown for an imperial tax census and as a result, Yeshua was born in the stable of a roadside inn. A much more likely, though less romantic, possibility is that Joseph made his living as an itinerent laborer who routinely traveled through the various cities and villages of Gallilee looking for day jobs and short temporary employment. The important aspect of Luke's story is that Yeshua was born into a humble peasant family with little hope for any kind of earthly success. The real miracle is not his birth, but the simple fact that two millenia later we remember him and celebrate his birth throughout Christendom. Regardless of whether you accept the historicity of the man, the one fact that cannot be denied is that billions of people around the world do accept his historicity and because they accept his historicity, they also acknowledge him as their rightful king.

The real meaning of Christmas is far more than the simple birth of a peasant's son in the stable of an overfull inn. The real meaning of Christmas is the ongoing relationship between God and humanity. The hope of the season, the hope embodied in Yeshua for believers and in Santa for non-believers, is the hope of a genuine redemptive relationship between the divine and the mundane, between ordinary people and the unseen power that drives the universe relentlessly down the river of time.

The real challenge is to carry that relationship beyond this day and into every day of our future. Not for the sake of some collectivist salvation or global utopia, both of which have always been and still remain impossible to realize. Instead, the goal of God outlined in the pages of the Bible is an individual one-on-one relationship with each of us personally. What makes Christmas different from Ramadan or Oshogatsu, or Samhain, or any other religious and communal feast day, is the promise made first to a wandering shepherd and later extended to everyone who chooses to believe. According to that promise, God himself, creator and master of all that exists, is intimately concerned with the individual happiness of every single one of us. And yes, that includes you. The only thing required in return is to accept him for who he is and to love our neighbors as deeply as we already love ourselves.