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DECEMBER 25, 2012: CHRISTMAS (Eucharist at Midnight)


Isaiah 9:1-6
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

As we listen to this morning's first and second readings we're reminded that no Christian feast "eisegetes" Scripture more than Christmas. Passages which originally had one meaning are twisted around and given an interpretation which their original authors never intended.

When Isaiah, for instance, proclaims, "A child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests!" he's not talking about Jesus, he's commenting on the birth of the future king Hezekiah. During this period - around 740 BCE - kings in Judah weren't noted for their devotion to Yahweh and Yahweh's will. The prophet hopes for a turnabout in Hezekiah's birth; a reversal of his father Aha// policies. No wonder he gives him such fantastic honorary titles: "Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace." Though these might be traditional ways of referring to a Jewish king, Isaiah is convinced that this time, with Hezekiah on the throne, they'll have real meaning.

In the same vein, the unknown author of the letter to Titus isn't talking about Jesus' birth in Bethlehem when he writes about awaiting "... the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ….    “He could only be referring to the risen Jesus' second coming: the Parousia. After 2,000 years, that event has yet to happen in the way the earliest followers of Jesus anticipated.

Except for the actual gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, it's hard to pick preliminary readings for this feast. There are no passages in the Hebrew Scriptures which originally were intended to predict Jesus as we know him, nor did Paul and his disciples focus on his birth. In some sense, Jesus' arrival and ministry as Messiah is a surprise, even to faithful Jews.

Actually the infancy narratives were the last part of the gospels to take shape. The passion/resurrection narratives were the first. It's only after understanding the latter than the former make any sense. Though those of you who are married can probably tell me about the first time you met your eventual significant other, I presume you can't go into similar detail about every other person you've met during your lifetime. This particular meeting is important only because of what happened later, not because of what actually transpired in the original encounter. It's the same with Jesus' birth. Unless he one day dies and rises, his birth is insignificant. But once he does die and rise, the narrative of his birth is colored by the evangelists' faith in that later event.

Luke for instance, believes it's important to make Jesus' birth in Bethlehem the result of a decree from Caesar Augustus. One of the reasons he writes his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles is to encourage his readers to have no fear of the Roman Empire - and the Roman Empire to have no fear of Christianity. Though his hopes will eventually be dashed by later persecutions, at this point he believes civil history can play a role in God's "salvation history." They're not always two opposing forces.

Perhaps this morning we can best understand the unexpectedness of Jesus' arrival by first experiencing the dying and rising which his original followers experienced. Only after we give ourselves for others, as he did, will the unexpected become the norm. Who knows in what "normal" events of life we'll discover the risen Jesus. He/she might even be present in people we've known for a lifetime, yet never really looked before with the eyes of faith. If we're just experiencing the expected today, something isn't right.