DECEMBER 25, 2013: CHRISTMAS
One of the most difficult things for Christians to do on this day is to keep focused on the basics of our faith.
We concentrate so much on Jesus' birth that we forget both that the gospel infancy narratives were the last part of those writings to take shape and that Christmas itself wasn't celebrated for centuries after the initial event. Obviously our ancestors in the faith didn't think Jesus' actual birth was as significant as we do.
In his now-classic book Speaking Christian, Scripture scholar Marcus Borg bemoans the fact that most Christians have drastically reduced the biblical idea of salvation to simply avoiding hell and getting into heaven. He correctly points out that the vast majority of authors of our Hebrew Scriptures knew nothing of an afterlife as we know it. (The insight that one could live forever after death didn't even permeate Judaism until about 100 years before Jesus' birth.) And even in the Christian Scriptures, getting into heaven doesn't seem to be the major reason people became Jesus' followers. The main thrust of biblical salvation almost always concerns what's happening right here and now and how our lives are changed by God entering into those lives.
In today's Deutero-Isaiah reading, for instance, the "good news" Yahweh's messenger is bringing to the people in exile has nothing to do with what's going to take place after their physical deaths. The "salvation" he announces revolves around their eventual return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the holy city in a peaceful environment.
But just as a huge percentage of Deutero-Isaiah's audience never seemed to notice the salvation taking place around them, so both the author of Hebrews and John the evangelist also must deal with people who don't see the impact the risen Jesus can have on their daily lives.
For John, Jesus is the "true light which enlightens everyone." He comes into our darkened world bringing life to those who believe in him - who commit themselves to imitating his dying and rising. Not only do we believe he's the child of God, we're convinced that he also empowers all his imitators to become God's children. Best of all, the risen Jesus - this word of God - is the image of God among us.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews agrees, although he approaches Jesus' impact on our lives from a little bit different direction. He agrees Jesus is God's word, but not the only word. "In times past," he writes, "God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son." Jesus simply is just the last stage in God's ongoing communication with us. God's been speaking to us for a long time. But the writer seems to be convinced that if we haven't heard and followed God's word in the past, neither will we recognize Jesus as God's word today.
That might not be the message many of us look forward to hearing on Christmas. We'd rather just zero in on how nice it is that this little new-born Bethlehem baby is God, that he unselfishly surrendered his divine pre-existence to come down on earth and show us how to get into heaven. We conveniently forget the daily implications of Jesus' presence among us. God's word no longer comes to us from a distance; it's constantly among us, a part of all which God, through Jesus, created, as close to us as the air we breathe or the risen Jesus who now permeates everything and everyone we encounter.
Of course, it's also our responsibility to surface and follow that word on December 26th.