Christmas Longings—and the Desire of the Nations

Do you remember as a child anxiously and breathlessly waiting for Christmas to come?

In my childhood home, we followed the tradition of gathering as a family to read the Christmas story and open gifts on Christmas Eve (followed by stocking stuffers on Christmas morning!). I remember when I was about 8 years old that the wait was particularly difficult. I anticipated and dreamed of getting a Meccano set, though I wasn’t quite sure if I was getting it. So it seemed like torture waiting for gift opening time.

However, after Dad’s customary reading of the Christmas story, we were ready to open our presents. I tore into my present and was thrilled with the discovery of my Meccano set!


And even though that toy was the source of many hours of enjoyment and learning in months and years to come, I also distinctly remember that by the end of Christmas Day, I had these strange feelings of let-down, or mild disappointment.

It wasn’t disapppointment about the gifts—I loved what I had received. But it was that all the anticipation and euphoria was followed by a strange feeling of sadness and even a tinge of emptiness. I’m sure it had a lot to do with how much I worked myself up into an emotional frenzy that made coming down from the euphoria a bit more noticeable to my eight-year old self.

C.S. Lewis, Sehnsucht, and Christmas

C.S. Lewis adopted a German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht (ZANE-zookt). It was a word Lewis used often to describe the deep longings and desires of the soul that were often left unfulfilled. Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as “yearning, or wistful longing.” It’s a difficult concept to put into words (though Lewis is one of the best to do so), but most of us get it because we’ve all felt it at one point or another. We’ve hoped, and despaired when hope did not play out, often enough in our life that we intuitively understand Sehnsucht. 

Christmas can be a dangerous and depressing time of year for many. We put so much stock into the season, anticipating that it will somehow be “magical” and deeply satisfying, only to find ourselves with that feeling of emptiness again. It probably doesn’t help either when we find ourselves wondering why many of us don’t have the same excitement or anticipation in the Christmas season as we once did when we were kids.

However, rather than seeing the unsatisfied longings that are sparked and dashed often at Christmas, it may be better to ask ourselves what that longing, that wistfulness, is itself pointing to.

Here Lewis comes to the rescue. In discussing Sehnsucht in his famous little book, Mere Christianity, he puts it this way:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

I’m a bit theologically nervous with Lewis’ last phrase which speaks of being made for another world, even though I do buy into what I think he intends to say. In saying that we were made for another world, we need to be careful not to read into Lewis here a kind of escapism or even a tinge of Gnosticism: Lewis is too careful a thinker to do that. He wasn’t saying that we need somehow to escape God’s creation or that only an escape from this world will satisfy our deepest longings.

Rather, I think Lewis’ sense here is more along the lines of Jesus’ own words when he said, “I am not of this world.”  (John 8:23). Here Jesus isn’t saying that he does not share our humanity—he most certainly did and does, and Christmas is that time when we affirm that God’s Son took on full and permanent humanity. Rather, he is saying is that the origin or source of his identity and person is not derived from the created world, but from his Father in heaven.

The true Desire of our Desires

Christmas is ironically a time when we hope to see our deepest longings and desires to be fulfilled, only to find ourselves over and over again deeply disappointed. The gifts and family times and turkey meals are all great, and I’m not critiquing those things which can serve up good moments of joy delight.

However, the strange paradox of Christmas is that so many hopes are placed in things that cannot ultimately satisfy, even though Christmas is the time to commemorate the coming of the One who truly is the “desire of the nations.” As the prophet Haggai foretold:

I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Hard to believe that the babe in a manger is the one who will shake the nations, and yet he is indeed the one whom the nations truly desire—despite their, and our, unwillingness or failure to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of the deepest desires and longings of our hearts.


The Prophetic and Political Significance of Jesus’ Natal Announcement

We tend to be aware of the prophetic significance of the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2. As Christian readers we are likely to grasp how the announcement was directed to Jewish shepherds who (likely) would have seen it as a fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy.

But we may be less attuned to fact that the announcement would have also been heard by Gentile recipients reading Luke’s Gospel as a radical political statement. Both of these aspects are important to understand, so let’s look at them in order. How might a typical Jewish person hear the angelic announcement? And how might a typical Gentile or Greek hear it?

The Prophetic Significance of the Angelic Announcement

First, let’s recall what the angel told the shepherds:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).

Here I want to highlight four words or phrases from the angel of the Lord’s announcement: 1) Good News; 2) Saviour; 3) Messiah; and 4) the Lord. (2:10-11)

From a Jewish perspective, the four words would likely be received as an announcement of the fulfillment of the prophetic hope of the Hebrew Bible.

Good news – The prophet Isaiah (which has sometimes been called “The Fifth Gospel”) makes repeated mention of “good news.” (E.g., Isaiah 40:9, 41:27; 52:7). Thus, when the angel of the Lord announces that he is bringing “good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” Jewish shepherds are likely to have their minds drawn to these promises.For example, think of Isaiah 40:9 which says,

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, 
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

What is the good news? “Here is your God!” It’s no wonder the shepherds went for a look!

Saviour – The word Saviour is derived from the Hebrew name “Joshua” which literally means, “Yahweh is salvation.” When the shepherds arrive at the manger side and find out his name is “Jesus” (the Greek version of Hebrew Joshua), the connection of this baby to Israel’s promises of deliverance embodied in Joshua would have been obvious.

Messiah – This word, of course, is at the heart of Jewish hopes. The Hebrew Scriptures long predicted the coming of the anointed one. And any Jewish person who was even minimally attentive knew that the Messiah would come from the line and house of King David. Of course, that the shepherds were directed to and found their way to Bethlehem, the city of David, well, that just was icing on the cake!

Lord – But just in case the shepherds missed it, the angel of the Lord declared that the baby is “the Messiah, the Lord.” The word “Lord” (Greek, kyrios) here is loaded with significance. As Larry Hurtado points out, the word Lord or kyrios, “had become a widely-used oral substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews.” I don’t know what language the angels spoke to the shepherds in, but for Luke, there is a clear connection of the identity of the Messiah with the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible.

In short, for Jewish readers of Luke’s account, it is clear that Jesus is to be understood as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes as testified to in Hebrew Scripture. The long awaited Messiah had come, and the shepherd’s did not delay in going to see him. And when they did, they went out, witnessing to what they’d heard the angels tell them about the child (Lk. 2:17). (Notice here that their witness consisted primarily in what they heard. Although they speak both of what they heard and saw (v.20), it is the angelic message which gives content to their witness, not so much what they saw.)

The Political Significance of the Angelic Announcement

But what about for Gentiles or Greek speaking readers? How would Luke’s record of the angelic announcement resonate with them?

Here we need to run through these four words once again, but this time I want to argue that for our Gentile author, Luke, and for what we assume would be in the first instance a predominantly Gentile audience, the words elicit a radical political announcement.

Here we must not miss the connection between the opening line (“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .”) and the proclamation of the angel of the Lord in Luke 2:10-12. It is easier to see, as above, how this announcement aligns with Hebrew expectation because we are more likely to be familiar with the Old Testament. But it is a bit less obvious to see the radical political implications of the angelic announcement apart from some extra-biblical information that most readers of the Gospel today do not have immediately at their fingertips. Remember that for most Gentiles reading or hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, they would have far less familiarity with the Hebrew Bible than, say, Matthew’s readers and hearers. Thus, when Luke provides his account, it is in the context of the historic figure of Caesar Augustus. Thus, the political allusions would have more likely resonated with Greek/Gentile hearers.

In short, everything that is said about Jesus by the angel as recorded by Luke was previously directly or indirectly attributed to Caesar Augustus himself. So let’s go through these four words again,but this time from the perspective of how Caesar Augustus would have been understood.

Good News – In his book, Divine Honours for the Caesars, Bruce W. Winter draws attention to a decree written by the Proconsul of the League of Asia around 8 BC which extols the virtues of Caesar Augustus—the very same Caesar spoken of in Luke 2:1. At one point, the Augustan decree says, “with his appearance Caesar [Augustus] exceeded hopes of all those who anticipated good tidings [‘euangelia’ – Gospel, good news] before us, not only surpassing those who had been benefactors before him, but not even leaving those to come any hope of surpassing him the future.” (Winter, 37).Historians generally agree that the birth of Jesus took place around 4 BC, which means that the Augustan decree spoken of by Winter had been written just four years earlier. It isn’t hard to see the radical nature, then, of the angelic announcement which declared that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was “good news” for “all the people.”We shouldn’t underestimate how this account is a direct  “poking the bear” of none other than the mighty Caesar Augustus which just four years previously had been declared to have been the greatest leader ever and with no hope of any coming after who would surpass him. And yet, here came Jesus on the scene, announced as “good news for all the people.”All this to say: The angelic announcement as “good news” isn’t political subtlety, but a forthright declaration of challenge to the Augustan decree! One simply has to say that this was a statement of political boldness at its best!

Saviour – A year prior to the Proconsul’s 8 BC decree, there is also evidence that this same Caesar August was declared publicly to be a saviour to the people.  On a Priene calendar inscription we find this:“Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order” (Emphasis added).

Moreover, an inscription from the city of Halicarnassus declared Augustus to be “saviour of the common race of man” (Cited in Winter, 72) and scholars have commonly noted how he was repeatedly called “the savior of the world” and “the savior of the inhabited earth.”The fact that Augustus was issuing a decree, according to Luke, to the “entire Roman world” (Lk 2:1) and that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3 traces Jesus all the way back to Adam (unlike Matthew who traces all the way back to Abraham) indicates that when Jesus is declared to be “saviour”, in a first century Gentile familiar with the honours accorded Augustus as “saviour of the common race of man,” it is beyond doubt the counter narrative Luke is providing for us. No, Luke’s Gospel says, it is not Augustus who is the Saviour of humanity, but Jesus, the man for all people.

Messiah – English translations of Luke 2:11 (such as the NIV I’m citing from) translate the last clause as “he is the Messiah, the Lord.” The word Messiah is the English transliteration of Hebrew word “Mashiach.” However, Luke, writing in Greek, records that the baby is the Christos Kurios, more directly translated in English as “Christ the Lord.” (I think English translations should opt to translate the word as “Christ” here, given Luke’s Gentile orientation, but I digress.) At any rate, both Messiah and Christ mean “anointed one.”

In Judaism, of course, the anointed one, the Messiah, is clearly associated with the prophetic anticipation of the one to come from the house of David, as noted above. Its noteworthy, then, that Jews were predisposed to be awaiting and looking for the Messiah to come, and in their looking, they were aware that the Messiah was going to be born in “Bethlehem in Judea” (Matt 2:5).

So, when Luke then goes on to begin his account of Jesus (right before the genealogy) by recording a birth announcement, the parallel to imperial power cannot be ignored. Jesus cames as Messiah and saviour for all, including all right back to the time of Adam! But Jesus also comes as the one who will be Messiah and Saviour of all to come.Here Winter points to a lengthy resolution passed by the members of the Koinon of the province of Asia. In that resolution, the birth of Caesar Augustus is viewed as the beginning of a new Golden Age and they declared that Augustus’ birthday should mark the beginning of a new calendar year to represent how with the appearance of Augustus, a new world age had begun. Indeed, an inscription to Augustus read: “the birthday of our god marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming.” (Winter 37).

An anointing is a marking, a designating, so here again, it is not difficult to see how Luke’s portrayal of Jesus birth is so closely tied to the decree of Caesar Augustus who himself was portrayed as the harbinger of a new age. And yet it is Jesus, the angels announce, who is the anointed one, and the one who “Today” (2:11) (usually a word used in the Bible connected to the announcement of the present day arrival of the kingdom of God) has come as one bringing joy to all people.

Lord – It is as if the best is saved til last with this word. As noted above, the word Lord (kyrios) was clearly associated in Jewish thought with Yahweh, but what about in the Gentile mind?

N.T. Wright makes the claim that at the time of Jesus’ birth, “as far as most of the Roman world was concerned, the ‘divinity’ of the emperor was obvious and uncontroversial” (Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, 65)Here the full significance of Luke’s record of the angelic announcement comes into focus. Indeed, Caesar Augustus declared his father a deity, thus making Augustus a “son of deity (or as inscriptions put it, “a son of a god” (Cf. the title ascribed to Jesus: the son of God!).

It is widely known that the Emperors were commonly acknowledged and honoured as nothing less than deities themselves. In fact, it was because of their divine status as deities that eventually Christians found themselves in trouble whenever they found themselves declaring, “Jesus is Lord!”–but that’s for another post some day!

So, the natal announcement plays a dual role for both Jewish and Gentile hearers. For the Jew reading Luke’s account, the angelic announcement encourages them to see Jesus as the fulfillment of all Hebrew prophetic anticipation and as the one to come, the Messiah, the Son of David.

But for Gentile hearers, the natal announcement is shot through with political significance and challenge. Indeed, for many of Luke’s readers, the natal announcement is nothing less than a political counter challenge to the highest political authority of their day, namely, the Emperor himself.

And so Jesus Christ is to us today: the hope of Israel (Jeremiah 17:13) and the desire of the nations (Haggai 2:7).

Christmas Story Redux

I’ve been working on Luke 2:1-20 for a Christmas sermon. My study of the passage led me to consider the response of Mary in verse 19: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” If we ask how it is that we should respond to Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, it seems to me that he is saying that the right response is going to be something similar to Mary’s: to treasure up all these things and ponder them in our heart.

But as I thought about Mary’s response (and ours),  I asked myself: What exactly am I supposed to treasure and ponder from this story? I think if we are honest, it can be easy to assume that Mary’s pondering of the events which had just unfolded was somewhat sentimental and nostalgic. Yet when I read both Mary’s own song (the so-called “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55), I am convinced that Mary’s ponderings were anything but sentimental. I think here especially of 1:52 where Mary declares, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” This isn’t the language of sentimentality. Mary was beginning to perceive the monumental event which the birth of Jesus was.

However, I think that we have actually ended up far too often sentimentalizing the Christmas story. It might in fact explain why we have gradually embellished the narrative with details that serve well to fill out the story but actually detract from (Luke’s, at least) biblical narrative. And so I ask,  Might the traditional embellishments to the Christmas story (Mary riding on a donkey, the grumpy innkeeper, the animals in the stable, etc.) actually work against Luke’s simple telling of the story? Is not the birth of Jesus according to Luke to be understood as nothing less than the culmination of OT history (Cf. Luke 1 and the long story of the birth of the Baptist prophet) and the invasion and inversion of secular history (cf. Luke 2:1-3 – Caesar’s global census)? All the details we add to Luke’s account makes for entertaining Christmas plays but might actually unwittingly undercut Luke the historian’s (Cf. Luke 1:1) main point: That history serves Jesus and not the other way around.

Isolating Luke 2 from Luke 1 and then proceeding to embellish the story with details to meant to fill out the sparseness of Luke’s natal account may actually serve to defang the cosmic and political force of the story. For in doing so, we make the birth narrative into a comfy tale or legend rather than the earth-shaking, history-altering, divine-invading event that it is.

The Wexford Carol

Bluegrass aficionados will likely recognize the name Alison Krauss, the American bluegrass-country singer who became well known for her part with the Coen brothers’ movie “Brother, Where are Thou?” while classical music enthusiasts will likely recognize the name Yo-Yo Ma, the accomplished Chinese-American cellist.

So what happens when you bring together a bluegrass singer and a classical cellist to sing a 12th century Irish Christmas carol? You get this–a beautiful rendition of the Wexford Carol. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Here are the English lyrics (not all of which are sung in the video):

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born.
The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town
But mark right well what came to pass
From every door repelled, alas
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall.
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angel did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Arise and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born.
With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went this babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife.
There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet.

Merry Christmas!


On the “Flash Mob Phenomenon”

There’s some discussion taking place in the blogosphere about the theological appropriateness of the so-called “Hallelujah flash mob” videos that are making their rounds these days. (See others here, here, and here…I’m sure there are lots more).

James K. A. Smith expresses his concern that all that may be accomplished through the Hallelujah flash mob is to reduce Jesus to a commodity of the mall. Perhaps. But let’s not forget that the Church has done this quite well long before the mall ever appeared. At least part of the history of the Church is how it has so often made the Gospel of Jesus a commodity that it disperses as it pleases. So I hardly think that somehow the Hallelujah flash mob will make it any worse than it already is. Whatever the case, Smith concludes, “If the liturgies of the mall are going to be countered, it will take the plodding, faithful presence of the Spirit in practices that will never be exciting enough to go viral on YouTube.” I’m not sure how he knows that in advance. Somehow I think if they would have had phone cams on the day of Pentecost, we would have seen some pretty exciting footage. Indeed, when people heard of the exciting things Jesus was doing in his ministry, people flocked to see the exciting action.

My friend Jon Coutts over at “this side of sunday” is also a bit suspicious of the phenomenon,  even if they do make him (and probably Chesterton) smile. His concern is whether these Hallelujah flash mobs are performed so out of context that they are meaningless to those hearing them. But this is not convincing to me because the argument implies that there is a “right and proper” context in which this song ought to be sung. And what context is that? The concert hall? Is that not also a place where many idols hang out? Are highly cultured, wealthy attendees at a benefit concert (the context in which Messiah was often performed originally in Handel’s day) better able to hear the message being sung? Or perhaps the only right context is the Church building? Problem is, the last I noticed, there are probably a one or two consumers making the rounds there, too. C’mon, guys! It is not as if the spirit of consumerism lurking in the mall is somehow a qualitatively different spirit of consumerism from the one that is also at work in the concert halls, universities, and indeed, churches (whether high, low, or non-liturgical!).

I, for one, am less suspicious about the flash mob phenomenon, if for no other reason than I reject the idea that there are more or less appropriate contexts for proclamation of the kingship of Jesus. The implicit assumption, I think, that these critics make is that there are appropriate “sacred” places to sing the liturgies of the King, but that in other “secular” (or more specifically, “consumerist”) contexts, this proclamation ought to be reserved. I humbly disagree.

If there is a place that needs to be invaded with the Gospel, is it not the mall? And let’s not forget that the MAJORITY of people who see these flash mobs are doing so on the internet, not in the mall itself. And are not the mall and internet  places where the Lordship of Christ so desperately needs to be proclaimed? Given that the Scriptures declare that the “world is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psa 24:1), I’m not convinced that there is anywhere where public declaration that “He shall reign forever and ever” is out of context. Again,  I think of the Psalm 96:3 which says, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.”

Of course, the Psalmist had never heard of a North American mall or the internet, but why should such declaration be ruled out of court as nothing more than a commodification of Jesus? Or think of Paul’s declarations in Athens or Ephesus (Acts 17 & 19). He brought the declaration of Jesus to the marketplace, the “mall,” as it were, of the first-century.

Of course, there is the critique that most of these particular Hallelujah flash mobs were used  a marketing ploy. Maybe organizers of Hallelujah flash mobs are for the most part doing this for profit. That may well be. Here I think of Paul’s statement that there are indeed some who preach Christ out of false motives (whether for selfish ambition or envy). But Paul does go on to say, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.” (Phil. 1:18)

A line of Karl Barth’s that is often quoted goes like this:

God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does. (CD I/1, 55).

To be sure, Barth goes on in the same passage to say that this does not give us an excuse to make flute concertos or, for that matter, Hallelujah flash  mobs, a replacement for the work of the church to proclaim the Gospel. But I, for one, am apt to reserve judgment about whether or not God could well break through to a 21st century mall shopper (or Youtube viewer) to remind her or him that the King of Kings shall reign forever and ever. And while perhaps for many, the proclamation of the Hallelujah chorus may come across as amusing but empty words, it does not change the truth of that which it proclaims. Yes, some (maybe even most?) ears will not hear. But is it our place to say that God could not cause some to hear precisely what they need to hear in this season? For those who have ears to hear,  let them hear the Christmas declaration:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6)

No room–in the guest room?

What if the story of the birth of Jesus in a stable because of lack of availability in the inn was–well–not quite the way it happened? This is what Ben Witherington III argues in an article published a few years ago.

In short, Witherington argues that the word translated “inn” (Luke 2:7) in most modern translations should really be “guest room.” Witherington goes on to argue that archaeological evidence indicates that houses in Bethlehem had caves or shelters attached to the back of the house and this is probably where Mary and Joseph were put. Indeed, they likely weren’t trying to get a room at the local motel, but were staying with relatives.

Interestingly, the 2010 edition of the New International Version has adopted this wording:

6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,
7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

You might also want to check out The Net Bible’s comment connected to Luke 2:7. As they put it,

“There was no place for them in the inn.” There is no drama in how this is told. There is no search for a variety of places to stay or a heartless innkeeper. (Such items are later, nonbiblical embellishments.) Bethlehem was not large and there was simply no other place to stay.

Jesus Evicted: A Short Advent Story

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)

It was the usual row which came up year after year on town council for the past 10 years straight: Could the crèche be located on the lawn of City Hall or not?

Lines were drawn, as usual, between the “pro” and “con” crowds. Prominent on one side was cranky old Bartholomew (“Bart”) Collins, a part-time Social Studies substitute teacher for Bethel High, who faithfully reminded everyone on council of the principled need to keep “church and state” separated. His position was clear:  City Hall is no place for Baby Jesus! On the other side was Miriam Dominique (or as more commonly known, Sister Mary), well known as the town’s longest-employed and most beloved kindergarten teacher at St. Peter’s Elementary. Not surprisingly, Sister Mary argued consistently and vociferously to “keep Christ in Christmas”!

Every year for the past decade,  Sister Mary’s sensible voice had prevailed, and every year for the past decade, Baby Jesus lay quietly, but prominently, on City Hall lawn. But every year the vote edged closer and closer toward a “secular upset.” Two years ago, the usual 8 to 1 vote had been 6 to 3, and last year, Jesus had only narrowly avoided being ousted with a 5 to 4 vote.

Given this history, the city’s council chamber this year was buzzing with both nervous and gleeful energy. Whether one was nervous or gleeful, depended on which side of the hall one sat: Sister Mary’s “Bible thumpers” occupied stage left and nervously fidgeted and frowned across the aisle toward Bart’s fellow “commies” clustered in strategic spots on the right. But tonight, the Bart-contingent was poised for a well deserved victory. Victory indeed! For rumour had it that Bart had successfully swayed the new-comer and youngest member of council , one Lisbeth Johnson, to the cause. But only time–and a fateful vote–would tell.

“I now moo-ve to the last item of bizness,” the Chair drawled. “We have here a motion on the floor from thuh last meetin’ which reads, “Moved by Councillor Dominique that a Nativity scene be located on the East Lawn of City Hall for the full month of December to commemorate the Christmas holiday.”

As was the custom, various members of council rose, one by one, to speak for or against the motion. The speeches were short and to the point, and civic respect marked both sides of the debate. By now, virtually everyone in the room knew Bart and Mary’s speeches–neither had bothered to change a word in their argument from year to year. Consequently, few really listened to their arguments while they spoke, including the town reporter who momentarily suspended her scribbling to sip her Starbucks and send an SMS message.

Beyond Bart and Mary, everybody else’s position also became clear: three Councillors each supported Bart and Mary, leaving only one more to speak–the newcomer. Now, the commonplace gave way to suspense, as if there were an invisible scoreboard showing a 4 to 4 tied hockey game! Onlookers sat on the edge of their seats, waiting for sudden death overtime to decide the game!

And then, Lisbeth rose to her feet to speak.

Mary looked down with despondency. Word on the street was that the newcomer would come in like an clumsy ox and upset the manger. Sister Mary prayed silently that the onslaught of evil forces pervading the room would be vanquished by the heavenly host, while Bart’s countenance shone brighter than the star in the East as he already sensed victory!

“Most of you are still getting to know me,” young Lisbeth began. “So let me tell you just a bit about myself before I argue for or against this motion.”

“I was raised in a little town, not too far from here, where every Sunday I attended a little white church with my parents. There I heard weekly the stories of the Bible. Of course, you won’t be surprised that I heard the story about Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds and the wisemen over and over again. And to be honest, I loved that story and I still love it today. In fact, the Christmas story really gives me a warm feeling inside whenever I hear it. And whenever I see a Nativity scene, I get that same feeling all over again.”

Sister Mary raised her head, pondering these words. Perhaps all was not lost. Perhaps Lisbeth would rise up and support the Christ Child!

Bart, on the hand, nervously nudged his pen back and forth on the desk. Was Lisbeth going to cave in to emotion and nostalgia over against clear-headed rationality and civic principles? Would she give in to the self-righteous duress imposed by those–those–fundamentalists?

Lisbeth continued. “But today, the decision to put a crèche on the lawn of City Hall cannot be decided by memories of days gone past or of personal nostalgia, even my own. Rather, we must decide on the basis of what really is for the good of all us citizens, whether Christian or not. And those of you here today who claim to be Christians, I don’t think I need to remind you that Christmas story itself says something about having ‘peace on earth and good will amongst all the people’.”

Lisbeth paused. Those in attendance held their breath. The clock ticked more slowly than it ought to have.

“I realize that my vote on this issue will likely be a tie-breaker, and that whatever I vote, I will likely be vilified by the other side.

“But today, let it be known here and now that I will vote against my own warm feelings, and therefore, I will vote against the motion to allow the crèche on City Hall Lawn. Not everyone in this town is a Christian and since City Hall is a public space, I declare my conviction that the Nativity does not belong there.” And with this, Lisbeth  sat confidently down.

The room was, momentarily, silent, only to erupt a full 3.5 seconds later with a grand cheer from the right when Lisbeth’s intended vote sank in! Bart and company had finally won! Council had finally seen the light. Time to send Jesus packing!

On the left, Mary’s supporters were sullen. A few even sobbed quietly. Moments later, when the chair called for the vote, the crèche, for the first time in a decade, was prohibited from occupying public space. 5 to 4 against the motion. The motion was defeated!

The next morning, a busy businessman,  having finished his morning newspaper, latte and cigarette, stuffed paper, cup and butt into the garbage can on the corner.

Emerging from the alley, a frail,  straggly-haired, old man, reeking of urine, shuffled toward the receptacle, grabbed the paper, snatched the cup and rescued the smoldering cigarette.  Pausing momentarily, he scanned the paper’s front headline: “Baby Jesus Evicted!

“I know the feelin’,” he muttered as he stuffed the newspaper into his jacket, if only to battle the bitter cold yet one more day.

Pondering Christmas Preaching with Karl Barth

With Christmas just around the corner, here’s “three points” which Karl Barth emphasized about Christmas, and which I think those who have Christmas preaching responsibilities to fulfill will do well, like Mary, to ponder deeply in our hearts in preparation for the Christmas sermon.

1) The inclusion of Bethlehem, Caesar Augustus, and Quirinius in the Christmas narrative reminds us that this not a myth, a legend, or fairy tale, nor even a morality tale of “peace and goodwill to all men.” Indeed, the real “meaning” of Christmas is missed if it is preached in order to evoke a general feeling of humanitarian goodwill to the less fortunate in society of whom we dutifully are reminded year after year. On the contrary, the story of Christmas, with its specific historical referents (Bethlehem, Quirinius, etc.),

signifies that when the Bible gives an account of revelation it means to narrate history, i.e., not to tell of a relation between God and man that exists generally in every time and place and that is always in process, but to tell of an event that takes place there and only there, then and only then, between God and certain very specific men.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, 326.

In other words, Christmas preaching has little to do with the morality of peace and goodwill, but has everything to do with God’s good will of appearing in Jesus of Nazareth in the midst of our human history to bring us peace with him. Christmas isn’t a churchly Aesop’s fable extolling humility, peace, and general goodwill, but an astounding recollection of the unparalleled and mysterious in-breaking of God into the world! Consequently, preachers need to be wary of proclaiming the Nativity as if it were a lovely children’s story that highlights shepherds and donkeys and managers which gives hearers a warm, fuzzy nostalgic feeling about their childhood Christmases when the world seemed more peaceful and quiet than it really was. Rather, preachers must boldly tell the story in such a way as to heighten its significance for what it is: an unexpected intrusion into the status quo of our everyday lives–lives lived almost entirely on the safe predictability of cause and effect. The Christmas story is not yet proclaimed as Gospel if it only draws us back into the memory of “Christmases past” instead of leading us into the unknown future life of Christian discipleship, where it is the unexpected things of God which shatter the comforts of everyday religious routine, yet which is really the origin of true peace, shalom, with God and with our fellow human being.

2) Not only is Christmas a mystery of God with us, it is a miracle of God with us. True, Christmas is a time to announce the coming of God to us in Jesus at a specific time and place to specific people (and therefore to be proclaimed in historical terms), but Christmas is also the time to announce an utterly “new event” (a novum) unlike any other event and understood as something transcending historical understanding. Indeed, Christmas is, in the first instance, to be understood in light of Barth’s basic understanding of a miracle: as something which occurs in history, but which cannot be understood as arising from or having its origin in the normal course of historical events. In the section entitled, “The Miracle of Christmas,” Barth describes revelation (and therefore, the event of Christmas) as something which

comes to us as a Novum [“new thing”] which, when it becomes an object for us, we cannot incorporate in the series of our other objects, cannot compare with them, cannot deduce from their context, cannot regard as analogous with them. It comes to us as a datum with no point of connexion with any other previous datum. It becomes the object of our knowledge by its own power and not by ours. … In this bit of knowing we are not the masters but the mastered.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, 172.

Barth regularly connects the “mystery and miracle of Christmas” with the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (CD I/2, pp. 173ff.) because it is in the Virgin birth that we come face to face with a miracle–something that comes to us in the normal course of our history (“Virgin birth“) but also as something  which cannot be incorporated into our history in the normal or expected way (“Virgin birth”). As he says, the Virgin birth is the doctrine which the Church posted “on guard…at the door of the mystery of Christmas” (CD I/2, 181) and which, if rushed past, most certainly leads us to miss its utterly miraculous character. Indeed, to seek to explain away the Virgin Birth is to fail to receive Christmas both as a mystery and as a miracle. On the contrary, the Virgin Birth  “can be properly understood…only as a sign wrought by God himself,  and by God Himself solely and directly, the sign of the freedom and immediacy, the mystery of His action, as a preliminary sign of the coming of His Kingdom.” (CD I/2, 181)

Christmas preaching, then, affirms the miracle of Jesus’ birth from the Virgin, not as a means of protecting him from the historical transmission of sin (this never seems to be the concern of the biblical authors, though this is how the doctrine has very often traditionally functioned), but as an affirmation and sign that Jesus comes to us both as God with us (i.e., as a man in the normal course of history) and as God with us (i.e., as a surprising personal presence outside of the normal course of history).

3) “The message of Christmas already includes within itself the message of Good Friday.” (CD II/2, 122.) The Christmas story, while already the Gospel of God’s coming,  is only the first in a series of events in God’s self-giving revelation and salvation. The Christmas story, while fully Gospel, is not yet the full Gospel. Rather, Christmas is prototypical of the whole act of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For in Christmas, we first find out, again surprisingly,  that God’s arrival with us is in a spiritually personal presence: in Jesus of Nazareth by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is, Christmas is but the first historical lesson repeated also in Jesus’ baptism, temptation, transfiguration, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and someday, the final parousia. For in the full life of Jesus, we see over and over again that the coming of God is always personally in Jesus and spiritually in the Holy Spirit.

Of the incarnation of the Word of God we may truly say both that in the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit and His birth of the Virgin Mary it was a completed and perfect fact, yet also that it was continually worked out in His whole existence and is not therefore exhausted in any sense in the special event of Christmas with which it began. The truth conveyed by the first conception is that the formation and ordering of the flesh in the flesh is represented in the New Testament as a procedure which unfolded itself as it did with a necessity originally imposed upon Jesus. “I have meat to eat that ye know not of .… My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (Jn. 4:32f.). “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk. 2:49). He must work the works of Him that sent Him, while it is day (Jn. 9:4). He must be lifted up from the earth (Jn. 3:14; 12:34). He must go to Jerusalem, to suffer many things, and be killed, and rise again, as the Synoptic predictions of the passion repeatedly say. This is the necessity of His action given at the beginning in the person of Jesus—the incarnation as an already completed fact.  (CD III/2, 337)

Christmas preachers, then, must be careful to ensure that Christmas is not presented as a self-contained story that stands merely as an introduction to the Jesus’ life, after which it can be left behind as ancient history. Rather, the Christmas story, while the particular history of a particular “new man,” is a theologically pregnant story which is repeated again and again in the life of Jesus, and which continues to be repeated again and again by analogy in every new man or woman who enters Christ’s body by the conception of the Holy Spirit. Christmas, in other words, is the true prototype of every new beginning, of every new creation in Christ Jesus. Christmas tells us that because of that day when God became flesh, today is always a new day in which the cause/effect of the decaying sinful history of man born into sin under Adam is abruptly broken into through the new birth of the Holy Spirit who leads us into union with Christ, the second (but really, first) Adam.

The Word of grace tells us . . . [that] the future has already begun, not an empty future still to be fashioned, but a future already filled and fashioned in a definite way, the future of the man who lives here and now just as the old past was his past, the future into which he here and now has the freedom, capacity and power to enter as his own most proper future. This future has begun with the fact that God has fulfilled His covenant with man, that He has loved the world and reconciled it with Himself, that He has introduced the justified and sanctified man as the second Adam (who was before the first). . . .The new man is born. It is worth noting that our Christmas carols tell us this in every possible key. If only our Christmas preaching would bestir itself no less distinctly to say the same! Since the enslaved man who was can be no longer, all that is needed is that he should now be the man he is.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1, 246.

collected reflections on Christmas

Here are some various online theological reflections I have stumbled over in the past while. Enjoy!


  • I’d recommend you drop on over to “…A Resch Like Me” to read the thought- provoking and challenging reflections on “A Wal-mart Christmas.” I love Dustin’s concept of the “broken witness” to Christmas.
  • On a more technical side of things, you might be interested in the article by Ross Hastings on entitled, “What DNA Matter Did the Baby Jesus Have?” Hastings follows Calvin on this question over Zwingli or Barth (though I wonder whether he got Barth’s position exactly right…I’ll have to look further into this). 
  • Last year Philip Yancey provided a brief review of an ancient debate between Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas on whether Christmas would have occurred if humanity had not sinned. See his article on the Christianity Today website called Ongoing Incarnation. You can also find an article there reviewing some of the current astronomical theories about what the star of Bethelehem may have been.
  • In terms of Christmas hymns, did you know that the original lyrics and music to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” (written by Charles Wesley in 1739) were not the same as the ones we sing? In fact, the opening verse is, 
Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”


(You can find all 10 of the original stanzas here.)

What in the world is a “welkin” you ask? Why, I’m glad you asked! It is the celestial sphere in which the astronomical objects like stars are planets were believed to reside. So for Wesley, it is not “herald angels” that are singing glory to the King, but the celestial heavens! (Apparently it was George Whitefield who changed the words to “Herald angels”!) As far as the tune, it is attributed to Felix Mendelssohn.  For more on this, see here  and the Wikipedia article  here.

  • In lieu of me personally coming up with anything new on the topic, you might also be interested in some “Xmas reflections” I had and which were published online for  a couple of years ago. Let me know what you think of my “In defence of ‘Xmas.'” 
  • Last, my collection of Christmas reflections would be incomplete without at least one Christmas joke. 

A Rabbi and a Catholic priest had spent hours debating the theological legitimacy of Christmas. Not surprisingly, neither was won to the other side. However, as Christmas Day approached, the priest was surprised one day when he received a Christmas Card in the mail from none other than the Rabbi. When he opened it up, he read:
Roses are red
Violets are bluish
When the real Messiah comes
You’ll wish you were Jewish!

If you have any further interesting Christmas links (whether serious or not so serious), let us know!