Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Real Meaning of Christmas

Isaiah 63:7-9
This passage is truly prophetic. It doesn't predict the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. It doesn't say that his mother would be a virgin when he was born, nor that he would eventually be rejected, crucified and raised from death. But it's prophetic in the true sense of that word. All true prophecy contains profound insights into the nature of God and into our relationship with God. And this passage is truly prophetic for, without recognising exactly how it might happen, the writer - the third prophet in the Isaiah tradition - understands that God will chose, out of a mixture of love and pity, to save the human race from its distress, and that he will do this not by sending a messenger or an angel to tell us how to change things for the better but by his own personal presence among us. Was the prophet thinking of incarnation, of God becoming a human baby lying in a manger? Probably not. That would have been beyond his wildest imagining. But he had sensed that God cannot save us from a distance, by remote control, but only by getting involved, by being in the midst of us.

Hebrews 2.10-18
Here the writer of the letter to the Hebrews explains the concept of incarnation in a few clear and concise phrases, crystallising - in a way that the third prophet in the Isaiah tradition could only grope towards - the full profundity of what it means for God to be present to save his people.

It means that God becomes our brother and shares the human condition with us, which also means suffering and dying, and being tested by all manner of trials and troubles, but continuing nonetheless to trust that all will be well in spite of these things. Just as the prophet had understood that God could only save us by being present with us, so the writer of Hebrews recognises that God had 'to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect so that he might' come to our help.

It's like the age old question, 'What would you do if you saw someone drowning?' From a purely selfish perspective, the safest thing to do would be to pretend that we hadn't seen the drowning person in the water. However, if that wasn't an option, the sensible thing might be to shout instructions to them from the bank, or to throw them a lifeline. And if that didn't work, the only options left would be either to stand helplessly and watch them die or to get into the water with them - like the fire fighter who begged for permission to be lowered into the freezing RiverHumber to save a drowning woman. The rope securing him to the shore nearly broke during the rescue, justifying his senior officer's doubts that it was a safe thing to do, but the fireman managed to bring the woman to the shore.

That is the kind of thing which Jesus did for us - except that, from a Health and Safety perspective, his mission was a tragic disaster. He actually had to go through death in order to pioneer the way to salvation. He saved us from slavery to the power and fear of death by dying himself and being raised by God, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest who accompanies us through suffering and death, to ensure that we need not be afraid any more.

Matthew 2.13-23
This story helps Matthew to explain how Jesus could be born in Bethlehem and yet raised in Nazareth, fulfilling two prophecies at the same time. It also means that, althoughJesus was disparagingly called 'the Galilean' by his enemies, Matthew can argue that his Galilean accent and provincial manners disguise a royal lineage that even the dastardly King Herod had recognised and tried to cut short.

Like Moses, who serves as an archetype for Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus and his family are exiled in Egypt. But, unlike Moses,Jesus is eventually able to return to the Promised Land, with fateful consequences both for himself and for the whole human race.

Finally, the story is anchored in real life, with all its tragedy and senseless wrongdoing. Sometimes people think that the Christmas story has fairytale elements to it. If that's true, then it's a Brothers Grimm fairytale, with moments of darkness and danger, not a sugary and saccharine tale for tiny tots.

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