T'was the week before Christmas
Readings: Isaiah 7:10-17; Matthew 1:18-25
It’s one week to go until Christmas. In the words of Corporal Jones; Don’t Panic!!
In the last minute rush when we suddenly get a card or a present from someone we haven’t provided for, or when we might be forced into sudden changes of plans; it is easy to forget that the Christmas that we celebrate these days bears little in relation to the first Christmas. In other words we say we remember the birth of Jesus, but really we run about buying presents and have we done this, have we done that??
Our readings today from Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew contain some points that if we take the time to look at them with a fresh set of eyes, may help in leading us to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the so-called Christmas Story. I’ll come back to the manner in which we call it a story later, but just for the moment, that phrase, how does it make you feel? Do you feel uncomfortable with the term Christmas story? Does it suggest that it really didn’t happen? That it is just a story? Hold that thought. For now though let’s dive into Isaiah. Isaiah, as much as can be certain is believed to have lived about 700 years before Jesus’ birth and it was writings by Isaiah and Daniel in particular that Jesus was strongly affected by and ones that he significantly used during his ministry. Isaiah was considered to be one of the greatest Prophets (if not THE greatest) of the Old Testament period, and very interestingly, guess what the name Isaiah means. It is translated as “The Lord Saves”; an enticing echo perhaps of the very meaning of Jesus own name, “He who saves”.
Isaiah prophecies that a young woman would give birth to a child who would signify “God with us”. When we hear this now we immediately assume Isaiah must have been talking about Jesus, it is such a close fit, however in the immediate context of Isaiah’s writing, this particular picture surrounds a relatively near event. In Ch. 8 Isaiah and a Prophetess bear a child who may well be the “immanuel” of Ch 7. However, since scripture always has multiple levels of meaning, later interpretations have pointed forward to a young Aramaic woman called Mary who was also of marriageable age (about 14 or so). The Aramaic word for a woman such as this also could be understood to be a virgin, which perhaps challenges our thinking that Mary actually had a virgin birth. When we get into a 2 and 8 about this, perhaps we need to consider that often translating ancient texts such as scripture is a really challenging task, and we may be making issues about what is really just a language thing. For me, I have to say I don’t spend too much time worrying about whether Mary had a virgin birth or not, that in itself doesn’t prove to me that Jesus is who he claimed to be. Of course the later interpretations of this particular passage from Isaiah also suggested that this pointed forward to Jesus, the root of Jesse and David who would be the full provision of “God with us”.
So from my vantage point in 21St Century Britain, I can’t say for sure that Mary had a virgin birth. I would say this though. Questions of whether Mary had had sex before she gave birth to Jesus miss the point of what was happening that first Christmas. If we get too focused on how many magi there were, were there shepherds? What was the Star? How did it stand still? Who was the innkeeper? Was there one? Was Jesus born in a stable or in the upper room of of a house from one of Joseph’s family? If we concentrate too much on these things then we actually get distracted and go further off the track.
Matthew and Luke in their Gospels paint a picture. They use picture language to help the reader understand. They tell a story if you like (there’s that word story again). They are trying to help us understand that something of huge, enormous, stupendous even significance had happened. They tried to help us understand that this child was in some mysterious way, truly God with us. That in this child who would grow to an adult, the full glory of the divine presence rested. That somehow this child was in some weird way, extremely difficult to explain, the great I AM who spoke to Moses, the God of Abraham, Jacob and Moses, the Lord of Israel himself. The child is the meeting place of Heaven and Earth. Jesus is the new Temple. He is a human equivalent of the Ark of the Covenant.
From this comes the language. This is why we get skies filled with Angels, a star standing still above Bethlehem. The writing is intentionally a bit crazy because the audience is called to realise that this is something that is extra special.
It’s not some ancient version of Alien visitation though. Jesus isn’t a 1st Century superman. No, the miracle is much more profound. God enters his creation in the form of a vulnerable human child. In this child, all of creation, not just humanity but the whole of creation will be put right not by some neat special effects cooked up in a Hollywood studio but by the child growing to adulthood, experiencing all the things we all get to have, snotty noses, illness, wet nappies the lot. Jesus would become what we were always meant to be, an image of God witnessing the glory of God to His creation, and in so doing, to go on and defeat all the dark forces that we have let enslave us. In Jesus we learn to fully praise and worship God and to bear witness to the truth.
If we do this, we echo our true purpose to be and image of God and we aid in the ongoing work of healing Creation that will come to final fruition at the right time.
This Christmas, I have a simple challenge for you. When you see the child in the manger, look again. What do you really see? And more importantly, what will you do as a result?
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit