The Jewish Meaning of Christmas?
by Steven Siciliano | 24 December 2017 |
The phrase seems incongruous at best; scandalous or even offensive at worst. But Jesus, after all, was a Jew. The meaning of his story arises out of a worldview steeped in and shaped by the Hebrew scriptures. The familiar carols and scripture quotes that fill the air during the holiday season are thick with Old Testament themes and images. It should neither shock nor surprise anyone to learn that his lifework aligns with expectations embedded in Jewish tradition as it was understood in his time. If contemporary Christians fail to recognize that correlation, their blind spot should not be taken to mean the Jewish dimension doesn’t belong. It may instead indicate that the faith as typically conceived is lacking a vital element.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Luke 1:30-33
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for… He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Luke 1:47, 54, 55
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Luke 1:68-75
Each of these sayings talks about Christ as fulfilling predictions about the deliverance and exaltation of Israel as a nation. They demonstrate something which, were it not for an a-historical reading of the gospels, should otherwise be obvious – that the story of Jesus is embedded within the story of Israel. Even more, the story of Israel should also be understood as extending beyond itself, to encompass the whole world, for similar reasons. God’s election of Abraham and his descendants was part of a larger and longer drama.
The call of Abraham appears in the biblical timeline almost immediately after Noah’s flood and the tower of Babel, when humankind had fractured into incompatible language groups. The narrative that preceded those two events goes back even further, all the way to the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. And while the connection between all these incidents may not be evident when the stories are read in isolation, the contextual thread is still there. God’s choice or election of Abraham was intended for more than the prosperity of his own kith and kin. Abraham and his lineage were called to carry forward a tradition that would ultimately lead to the healing of the world and all its people. The timing and setting of his story suggest this, but certain Old Testament passages express the idea more explicitly.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. Micah 4:1-4
A parallel passage in the book of Revelation, in which John describes the city called New Jerusalem, confirms the fact that this way of understanding the relationship of God’s people to the world continued into New Testament times:
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Revelation 21:22-26; 22:1-2
In sum, the core promise regarding Israel and her Messiah as it unfolded through the centuries is that God would one day commission a ruler from the descendants of Abraham who would govern Israel in righteousness and, by extension, serve to guide and order the whole world. After the time of Christ that vision would broaden out to include Gentiles within the covenant, but the core themes of righteous example and governance endured.
For Christian readers today that means the Good News goes beyond the salvation of individuals, as wonderful as that may be. In fact the personal benefits of the gospel, which are the ones most often promoted, gain their meaning from the larger proclamation that the long-awaited messiah had appeared in the person of Jesus, and that God’s reign had begun.
Clearly, not everyone in Jesus’ day or our own has accepted that idea, and restating the message here is not meant to criticize or condemn them or anyone else. On the contrary, this clarification is aimed at Christian believers, to remind them that the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is firmly rooted in Old Testament Jewish themes; that the blessing of the gospel transcends personal salvation and includes the renewal of the entire creation. Broadly understood, the birth of Jesus as Messiah is nothing less than God’s decisive act to heal and restore the world.
So when Christians share the message of Christ – in December or any other time of the year – they should remember and emphasize the benefits and ultimate goal that God has in mind for the world.
Because that is the Jewish meaning of Christmas.
And what would Christmas be without a story?
Henri and Georg were two boys, eight and nine years old, who lived in a squalid and dangerous village, in an impoverished valley, in one of the post-European-colonial countries.
Lacking infrastructure and harmed by corrupt leadership, life in the valley was marginal, dangerous, and almost without hope. The boys faced hunger and hardship at home, threats of being accosted in the street, and a pervasive sense of idleness and boredom.
To make matters worse, both Henri and Georg had single mothers who did whatever it took to survive, sometimes even working at night to barely feed and clothe their children.
Life was bleak and hard. And though the boys could still dream and talk about the kind of lives they would make for themselves when they grew up there were few resources or opportunities available that might ever allow them to achieve those dreams.
But then good news reached the villages. A mission school would open in the center of that little valley and would be free and accessible to all the local children.
Finally! Something positive and hopeful had entered their young lives. Though they would have to walk an hour to get there, Henri and Georg now had someplace to go, something useful to do, and the possibility of creating the bright futures they often dreamed and talked about. It was exciting, and it was real; something that would not disappoint them this time.
The school wasn’t fancy or high-tech but it was clean and well-built. The rooms were sturdy, orderly, and protected from the weather. In the courtyard there were patches of green grass, some flowers, and a small but vibrant vegetable garden. And the children were fed lunch every day.
Perhaps more important than that, everyone at the school was happy. The teachers and administrators welcomed the children warmly and made sure they were safe. There was no need to fear from bullies, thieves, or abusers. They were free to smile, learn, and live happily like children again.
To Henri and Georg the whole thing seemed like heaven.
After some time, it came to be the week before Christmas, and the students learned the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus. They cut out red and green pieces of paper and glued them together into long chains like Christmas lights, then strung them around the room. In front of the classroom building there a mini-manger scene was set up, with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus sheltered under a rough-hewn roof, with a star pinned on top and encircled by shepherds and wise men.
However, since it was the end of the year, the students would be on break for a week or so. And on the afternoon of Christmas Eve Henri and Georg walked home together, enchanted by the holiday spirit but a little sad that they would have to stay home in their troubled village every day until school opened again.
The boys were walking and talking about these things when all of a sudden they heard a loud shrieking sound, as something flew over their heads at high speed and crashed on the road ahead of them. The object moved so fast it had already struck and split a small crater in the ground before they could raise their hands to cover themselves.
No. It wasn’t a missile or grenade. There was no war going on. In fact, it looked like a rock only, but it was the purest silver-white stone they had ever seen, and when they approached to look more closely they found that the rock had broken in two, and they each grabbed a half. The pieces were warm. But more amazing than that was what happened next. When they held the fragments up and placed them together their eyes grew wide, because the two halves formed a perfect star.
Henri and Georg were speechless and could only look at each other in wonder, though they were both thinking the same thing. “It’s the Christmas star!”
They carefully placed the stones in their shoulder bags and walked home in joyful anticipation, agreeing to keep their discovery secret until they could figure out what it all meant.
That night, both boys’ mothers were out again and they each went to bed alone, thinking about the birth of Jesus, their wonderful new school and, most especially, the marvelous stone star that had fallen to earth before them.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Henri woke up. He noticed a muted glow coming from his satchel. “It must be the stone,” he thought. And when he got up and gently opened the bag, the room filled with a lovely white light
Then Henri heard a whisper, or at least he thought he did. It said, “Make a wish.”
Still half asleep, Henri just stood there and said nothing. Then he heard the voice again, “Make a wish.” So this time Henri spoke up and said, “I wish that Momma and I could live at the mission.”
Instantly Henri and his mother were transported to the mission compound, where they lived in their own small but solid hut inside the wall and surrounded by a little yard. For the first time that Henri could remember, his mother’s face was relaxed. Her lips did not look stern and tired. Her hair was soft and in place, and she even seemed to stand taller. No worry lines furrowed her brow. And Henri felt a deep sense of peace in his heart.
Next door, as you probably guessed, Georg woke up too, to the same situation. Unlike Henri, Georg had been expecting something like this to happen, so he jumped out of bed, uncovered the stone and hovered over it, smiling at its glow. He too heard the voice say, “Make a wish.” And after a moment’s thought he closed his eyes and said, “I wish our whole valley, and all the villages in it, could be as safe and beautiful and happy as the mission school. And immediately the entire region was transformed from poverty, squalor, and hardship to safety, order and happiness. All the people looked clean, clothed, and well-fed. They smiled and touched hands as they greeted each other along the way. A sense of peace, safety, and purpose filled the air…
Now, as in all stories like this, it is unclear whether this really happened or if it was just a dream the two boys had – though it seems very odd that they would have the same dream at the same time. Doesn’t it?
Either way, the boys’ respective wishes illustrate the two facets of good news which Jesus Messiah came to bring us. Henri’s wish for his mother is like the news that each of us individually can have a place in the kingdom of heaven. Georg’s wish for the happiness of the whole valley parallels the promise that one day, the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. Then peace and abundance will be available to all, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Hartsdale Seventh-day Adventist Church in Westchester County, New York. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.