In the comic strip Peanuts, Charlie Brown is lamenting that Linus will have to go to school twice as long as others…in order to unlearn everything big sister Lucy (mis)taught him! This humorous aside reveals something important: sometimes we have to shed wrong ideas in order to understand the truth of any matter.
The Advent Season and celebration of Christmas is a wonderful time to reflect on the Incarnation of the Almighty, the arrival of Jesus as God with us. We are astonished at the mystery of Mother Mary nursing her Creator and Redeemer. We offer our worship as we join with the angelic hosts proclaiming peace with the birth of our Lord and Savior. As we, like Mary, treasure in our hearts the profound truth that the crèche of Bethlehem will soon yield to the Cross of Calvary as Jesus atones for the sins of all humankind.
It is also fitting that we unlearn a few things about this moment in history:
- Joseph, Mary and Jesus were not homeless and poor. They we returning to their ancestral home for the census and found overcrowded conditions leading to modest lodgings in a barn. Jesus’ upbringing would be classified today as an artisan, small business owner or working class.
- The Wise Men from the East arrived about 18 months after the birth of Jesus in an entourage of scores of people. These were Persian leaders and scholars alerted to Messiah’s birth by heavenly signs.
- Christmas as a Christian holiday has been controversial from the 4th C to the present, with many rejecting its materialism and syncretism with winter solstice celebrations. As late as the mid-19th century, many churches and even states in the USA has no official Christmas Holiday!
- Jesus is born in a geography that was a crossroads of the continents and cultures. Though considered a country backwater by the Roman Empire, Judea was in fact a place of deep learning and tradition in Judaism as well as a locale where the Greek was the marketplace language and Roman Law provided stability.
Celebrating Christmas is good. Adapting local cultural expressions into Christian worship is accepted by most around the world. As we enjoy this Season, it is fitting to renew our covenant with the Lord and share this Good News with a confused and rebellious world.
Into a small village in an obscure province of the first-century the Roman Empire, a baby is born during a census. His parents are part of the artisan class, neither “dirt poor” nor “filthy rich.” His birth sparks some local and regional interest as pious Jews in the Temple and humble shepherds declare the dawn of a Messianic Age. Babylonian and Persian scholars journey for months and honor this toddler with lavish gifts. King Herod, a despotic and paranoid appointee of Rome, reacts to a potential rival with a killing frenzy targeting under two-year-old children. Undoubtedly the census helped his soldiers carry out this inhumane task.
Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure and the subject of adoration and disdain, deep loyalty and religious animosity. The Gospel records offer enough tantalizing details without the exhaustive data 21st century folks crave. Jewish and Roman sources affirm his existence and importance, especially as a catalyst for a rift in Judaism. His first followers were devout Jews. Their affirmation of Jesus’ Messianic office and Lordship led to expulsion from synagogues, persecution from Roman leaders and the formation of a new faith that now includes both Jews and Gentiles as equals.
Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ conception and birth. For his followers, it is the dawn of a new hope, the inauguration of a new age of salvation that will reach its fulfillment in Jesus’s crucifixion and bodily resurrection and its consummation with his glorious return in the future. The surprising and transformative news is that there is forgiveness of sins, empowerment for holy love and deep assurance of eternal hope available now, even as final salvation is yet to come.
The audacity of Christian hope is that all who believe enjoy favor with God and deep peace, new fellowship and a sense of divine mission right now. Our eternal security unleashes passions for purity and service. Though final redemption awaits Christ’s return, substantial “providential increases” (John Wesley) are possible today, from personal life-change to social transformations.
Let’s welcome our Lord with awe and humility, wonder and willingness to change. As we allow this real hope to permeate our lives, we join with god in the reconciling of all things.