Monday, December 9, 2013

The Meaning of Christmas

This is my first post for "Theology Friday." In light of our current context, I decided to focus on the meaning of what Christmas is, and how it relates to the Gospel message.

Christmas. That words conjures up images of Christmas trees covered with red, white, tinsel and all the colors of the season, snow-covered houses, roast turkey or roast goose, mashed potatoes, various dessert pies and other delicious foods, family gatherings, scenes of the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, family get-togethers that otherwise might not happen throughout the rest of the year, donations to the poor and needy, shoppers looking for the best deals for Christmas gifts (at least in our modern society), Christmas movies such as A Christmas Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, It's A Wonderful Life (and many others), Christmas specials, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (which is brimming with modern-day Christmas archetypes), Santa Clause, Christmas stories, and all the other images.

But still, as much as we would like to associate these with Christmas (and many of us, including myself, do), these things are not the meaning of Christmas. I bet most people know this at heart but sometimes we seem to forget this amidst all the excitement (both justified and unjustified) of the season. The reason we Christians hold dear this season in our hearts is the reason that Christ was born to us, born in a lowly manger to a virgin (though not exactly on December 25th to be precise, but more on that in another post), born to save us from sin and death and restore eternal life and fellowship with God, the fellowship that was lost in the Garden of Eve when Adam and Eve sinned (Genesis 3).

Biblical and Historical Roots of Christmas

Before we can enter into the Christmas story, we should take a small history lesson first. After the return of the Jewish people (approx. 430 BC) from the seventy-year captivity in Babylon (which is covered in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah), the Jewish people suffered captivity under several rulers, from the Persian Empire to the Greek Empire, as well as several rulers during the four-hundred year period of silence, and ultimately in 63 BC it fell under the iron hand of the Roman Empire after a long period of tension between Jews and Syrians. The Roman rulers appointed rulers to govern Judea and the Palestinian region, starting with Antipater and continuing with his son Herod the Great (which resulted in the Herodian dynasty). Instead of the priesthood descending from the line of Aaron, priests not of this line were exalted to the position, divided into the conservative Pharisees and liberal Sadducees. All these events caused bitterness amongst the Jews, resulting in revolts from the Zealots (which were crushed), and not only that, it emboldened in them a messianic fervor for a king from the line of King David that would crush the Roman Empire and restore the original monarchy that existed before the Babylonian captivity. In this context, we can look further into the birth of Jesus Christ and the meaning of the Christmas season.

The two books in the Bible that are most notable for covering the birth of Jesus Christ are the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The story begins with a virgin by the name of Mary, who is betrothed to Joseph. Both are descendants of David king of Israel (the lineage is covered in Matthew 1), but they are not rich; they are average Israelites living in the town of Nazareth, for the Davidic monarchy was destroyed with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Gabriel, an angel of The Lord appears to her, and he announces that God has chosen her to bear His Son Jesus Christ, who will save Israel and establish the eternal Kingdom of God (Luke 1:26-33). But Mary protests, saying that she had never been with a man, and she had been a virgin. The angel informs her: And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God." (Luke 1:35 NKJV) When Joseph is informed of this matter, he has an internal conflict over what to do; being an honorable and godly man, he doesn't want to dishonor her, and he considers divorcing her quietly (Matthew 1:19). But then an angel of the Lord appears to him, reminding him of the true nature of the child Mary bears (Matthew 1:20-21). This is all done to fulfill the prophecy of old: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." (Isaiah 7:14, NKJV) The sign of the place of his birth is a shining star.

It is not until an important event that this prophecy is fulfilled. Luke 2 describes a census being taken by Augustus Caesar, the Roman emperor during that time period. Every resident of the provinces ruled by the empire is to return to his birthplace and to the birthplace of his ancestors. Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem, the homeland of their ancestor David. But when they go to Bethlehem, the time of delivery is up, and they look for a place in an inn, but there is no place for them; so their only option is a stable. And the child is born in that humble manger, and Mary names him Jesus. 

Then the angel of the Lord appears to shepherds in the fields and announces the birth of Jesus Christ (Luke 2:8-14). So they go and see this child, and they understand what was told of and prophesied about this child. And Mary keeps those things and remembers them in her heart (Luke 2:19).

And there is more. After Jesus is born, wise men from the east (traditionally thought to be three) come to visit the baby, and they first come to King Herod (Matthew 2:1-2) and inform him of their purpose. Herod is troubled, for he sees the birth of a newborn king as a threat to his desire for power and rule. So he goes to the chief priests and scribes and inquires where this child is born. And they show him that it is in Bethlehem, quoting this prophecy from the book of Micah:

"But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;For out of you shall come a RulerWho will shepherd My people Israel." (Micah 5:2, NKJV)
Herod calls the wise men in secret and asks them the location of the Star of Bethlehem, professing that he wants to worship this King also (Matthew 2:7-8). So they go and give the baby gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense, but later they are given divine warning not to return to Herod, and so they go back to their own city. And the angel of the Lord warns Joseph to take Mary and the child to Egypt (Matthew 2:13), since Herod plans on killing the child; so they leave for Egypt and stay there until the king dies. Seeing that the wise men failed to report to him, Herod calls for the massacre of baby boys two years and under (Matthew 2:16-18) in an attempt to prevent Jesus from accomplishing God's divine purpose, resulting in the now-infamous Massacre of the Innocents. But he failed in his plan to eliminate Jesus (and he also killed off a chunk of the Jewish population in the process). All these events show the providence of God and His divine intervention in the birth of Jesus, from which His whole ministry is born, from which salvation is brought for men. As Acts 4:12 says, "[F]or there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (NKJV)

His whole ministry is history, but it lives on in the hearts of those who love Him and believe in His name. That is the meaning of Christmas. And while we rightfully celebrate this season with all our best and our most beautiful, we must remember the reason why we do this: because of the birth of Jesus Christ to us in human form. 

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