Three Christmases

December 20, 2020

In the Bible, we have three different version of the birth of Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, we have a Greek hymn to the Logos or Wisdom ( personified in the Old Testament as a companion of God since the beginning of time) adapted by the Evangelist to provide an explanation of how the Word of God became a human being in the person of Jesus; born through the will of God to bring Light and Truth and the opportunity to become ‘children of God’ to all who believe.

The writer of the gospel of Matthew took themes from the lives of Old Testament leaders such as Joseph (the dreamer) Moses, Samson, Samuel and David, and from the writings of prophets like Hosea and Isaiah to create the tale of the birth of Jewish Messiah. Born in a house in Bethlehem (like David) he will become a saviour, like Moses; a judge and a Nazarene, like Samson; coming from the dynasty of David, he will be King of the Jews. As the prophets and psalms predict, the wise and powerful of the pagan world will come from afar to pay homage to him. They will be drawn to his light in the form of a rising star and will offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew’s Jesus is the fulfilment of all these Old Testament traditions. Like the Jews of old he has to flee from troubles in his homeland into Egypt, and then returns to live in his homeland, but not in Judaea, but in Nazareth of Galilee.

We get a very different story of the birth in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ parents come from a provincial town, from a region despised as semi-pagan by the religious leaders. They are humble folk, pushed around by the Roman authorities, forced to leave home to register for a census when Mary was heavily pregnant. They were not important or wealthy enough to be given a guest chamber, so her baby was born in the lower part of the house, where the animals were brought in from the cold, and her baby was placed in a manger. The news of the birth is given first to more outcasts – shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks on the hills outside Bethlehem (as King David was doing when Samuel summoned him to be anointed as the next king of Israel). They are the ones who recognise him as King and Messiah, as do other poor and despised people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Simeon and Anna. In Luke’s tale, the birth goes unnoticed by the rich and powerful – there are no wise men, no star, no slaughter of babies in his story. After the purification, the family goes peacefully back to Nazareth, and Mary ponders all that has happened in her heart, as Luke means us to do.

There are some themes in common to all three stories; they hint at a virginal conception to make the point that the birth marks a new spiritual beginning for the whole human race; and they tell us that the people who accepted this child as the Messiah were those outside the religious mainstream: people from the provinces, the poor, shepherds and pagan astrologers.

Over the years, many more have elaborated the story. New Testament writers, theologians, composers of hymns and carols, artists, authors of mediaeval mystery plays, and folk stories, all have added their own interpretations, some of which have become part of the main story for us. Even saints have done their bit, like St Francis, who gave us the crib scene, with the stable, the ox and the donkey, none of which are mentioned in the Gospels. The birth of Jesus has been set in every place and time, until we come to the rich tapestry of the Christmas story we enjoy today. 

None of this matters. God gave us his son to be born into obscurity, in a time when no official documents, like birth certificates or passports, and no technology like cameras or videos existed to record the exact details for future generations. It was as if God was saying to us: “Here is my gift to you. Take it and make of it what you want. Tell his story in the way that is most meaningful to you and your people.”

The only proviso is – don’t think (like the child in my granddaughter’s nativity who refused to have any doll but hers as the baby Jesus)) that your baby Jesus is the only proper one. Read and listen to all the accounts of the birth of Jesus, don’t muddle them up, and try to hear what God is saying to you through each different story.

Bishop Nick Baines got into big trouble with some sections of the media when his book ‘Why wish you a Merry Christmas’, was published. (That seems to be an occupational hazard of being a C of E bishop these days!) He was accused of saying that we shouldn’t sing traditional carols or have infants doing nativity plays. If you read his book (which many who commented hadn’t!) you will find he is not saying that at all. What he did write is: sing carols, enjoy them, but don’t stop there! Some of them are good theology, but some of them are nonsense – especially those that imply that the baby Jesus never cried, or that the birth was beautiful and easy and Mary and Joseph had no problems. Enjoy your children and grandchildren performing the nativity story, but don’t stop there. Don’t leave the birth story as a tale for children, like Tinkerbell or Father Christmas, to be rejected when you grow up.

Go back to the Bible and read the accounts in the gospels and think about the characters as real people with real problems. Think how difficult it must have been for Mary and Joseph to accept this child, how their lives were disrupted by his birth, how the religious people missed the point, how the news was given to outcasts and strangers, and that it was not the faithful, but the faithless who came to adore him – and meditate on what that says to us about how God chooses to be present with us in the problems and uncertainties, the disasters and messiness of real life.

Then think about what that says to us as Christians about where we are meant to be and how we are meant to live, so that we bring light and truth and love to others as Jesus did; and how we can demonstrate what it means to know that, because of this child and the man he became, we have the chance to become children of God – and so does everyone else.

That is amazing and life transforming stuff – and a very good reason to celebrate and wish everyone a very happy Christmas.

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What’s in a Name?

December 19, 2010

(Isaiah 7, 10-16;Romans 1,1-7; Matthew 1, 18-25)

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

You can sometimes tell when a person was born by their name. I don’t just mean the time of year – we have probably all met people called Holly, or Noel, or Natalie because they were born on Christmas Day -but the decade.  There are names like Herbert, Hilda, Ada, and Elsie that were typical of my parents’ generation – and others like Tracy and Darren which came into fashion in the Sixties and Seventies.

 

When we chose names for our children, we tried to choose names that were timeless, and that wouldn’t identify them as being born in a certain era. We also tried to find names that wouldn’t be easy to shorten, though we failed in that – schoolchildren can manufacture a nickname no matter what name you choose!

 

What we didn’t give any consideration to was the meaning of our children’s names. I only found out this week that the name of our son means exactly the same as the (different) name of our grandson. Both their names mean ‘God has heard’. I wonder if any of you know what names they are?*

 

In Bible times, the meaning of a name was very important. This was unfortunate if you were the child of a prophet, since you were likely to be given a name which was in itself a prophecy – and some of them could be very long and complicated. Hosea called his first child Jezreel, meaning God plants, but when his wife was unfaithful and he saw that as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, he called their next two children Loruhamah (no more mercy) and Loammi (not my people) as a warning to the nation.

 

Isaiah (whose own name means Salvation of God) also gave his two sons prophetic names. The first was a hopeful name: Shearjashub, meaning a remnant shall return; but the second was called Mahershalalhashbaz, which can be translated ‘quick to plunder, swift to spoil’ a prophecy about the actions of the kings attacking Judah.

 

It is no surprise, then, in our O.T. passage today, to find him advising on the name of a baby soon to be born. Ahaz, King of Judah is terrified by the prospect of being attacked by the combined forces of Syria and Israel. Isaiah says that a child soon to be born (probably in the royal family) should be called Immanuel, meaning God is with us, and that before he is old enough to be weaned, the threat from Syria and Samaria will have vanished, as both kingdoms will be destroyed by the Assyrians.

 

In English (as in most of Northern Europe) surnames often come from the occupations followed by our ancestors, or from their personal names. Hence the large numbers of Smiths, Bakers and Cooks, and the Johnsons, Jacksons and Richardsons, descended from people in those occupations or with those names.

Names help us to recognise, identify and explain people – and the names given to Jesus are no exception.

 

In the opening of the Letter to the Romans, our N.T. lesson, Paul defines Jesus as the Son of David according to the flesh. So he identifies his place among the rulers of the Jewish people, and argues that he is a continuation of God’s provision for his people. Then he calls him Son of God, identifying his coming as a new initiative on God’s part, since he is proclaimed Son of God by being raised from the dead, something which has never happened before. Paul also gives Jesus the surname, which is really a title of Christ, the Greek form of Messiah, meaning ‘anointed one’; kings and priests are anointed, and Jesus was both.

 

Finally, Paul gives all of us a name: those who belong to Jesus Christ, or Christians. In that name we receive the gifts of faith, obedience and peace.

 

Our third reading, from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, also centres around the giving of a name.

 

Usually, on the fourth Sunday in Advent, we concentrate on Mary, the mother of Jesus; but Matthew’s account centres on Joseph.

 

He and Mary were betrothed when she conceived Jesus. In Jewish law, this meant that they were already considered to be a married couple, even though they had not yet started to live together. When she was found to be pregnant, Joseph would have been entitled to accuse her of adultery, and have her and the father of her child executed. At the very least, he would have been entitled to divorce her. Joseph seems to have been a man who knew his Bible, so he was very clear about the options open to him.

 

But Joseph was also a man whose knowledge went beyond the written law; he knew the name of God, which is another way of saying he knew  the character of God, and because he believed that God was merciful, he resolved to be merciful too, and to divorce Mary quietly. Of course, that would have spared her from death, but it would have left her with very little in the way of life. In a small town, everyone would have known he had rejected her, and when the child was born, no-one would have been prepared to marry her or care for the child.

 

Joseph’s name means ‘one who adds’, that is, one who goes beyond the minimum that is necessary. He shared the name with a major character from Israel’s past: Joseph of the coat of many colours, Joseph the dreamer, Joseph who saved the people of Israel from famine and kept them in safety in Egypt.

 

The New Testament Joseph is also one who hears God speaking in dreams, and who acts to save those of God’s people who are vulnerable. His dream contains an instruction to take Mary as his wife, and an assurance that her child is not the result of sin, but the work of the Spirit of God. He is given a personal name to give to her child: Jesus, or in Hebrew, Joshua, which means ‘God saves’.

 

Joseph married Mary and gave her son the name announced by the angel. But in marrying Mary, he also gave Jesus  a family name. In the Aramaic which they all spoke, Jesus would now be known as Yeshua bar Yoseph: Jesus the son of Joseph. Joseph gave to Mary and her son not just a name, but a home, respectability and a place in society.

 

The Bible and the Christian tradition have given many names to Jesus, as well as those he bore during his lifetime. They look both backward into Jewish history and forward to his unique role. From the Old Testament, he has been given the names from Isaiah’s prophecies; Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. In the New Testament he is known as Messiah, Saviour, Word, Light, Redeemer. In this same passage, Matthew applies to him the name given in Isaiah’s prophecy that we heard earlier, Immanuel, God with us.

 

One of the hymns we sang this morning, contains another list of names, taken from the Advent Antiphons, traditionally sung during the last days of the season from 17th to 23rd December at Evensong. Jesus is called Adonai, or Lord of Might; Rod of Jesse, from another of Isaiah’s prophecies, which predicts that a new shoot will rise from Jesse’s stock. He is named Key of David, a reference to another passage in Isaiah, where the Key stands for royal authority, a reference taken up by John the Divine in Revelation; and finally he is called Day Spring or Day Star, reflecting Zechariah’s prophecy in the Benedictus, that he will initiate a new dawn, a new beginning in the history of God’s people.

 

Some of the names given to Jesus in the New Testament have more importance for his earliest followers, since they look back to his Jewish heritage, and proclaim the continuity of God’s provision for them; but others have a more universal appeal. Jesus is the Day Spring, whose coming initiates a new dawn in the relationship between God and the human race. The name Jesus reminds us that God comes to us, not as a ferocious judge of our failings, but as one who saves us from our sins. the name Immanuel tells us that, no matter how dark and difficult our life seems, God is with us.

 

Names are so much more than just labels. They can be full of riches if we think about them carefully. In these last few days before Christmas, as we prepare to greet our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, at his birth, may we meditate on his names, and so come to know and love him better, and be ready to receive him more fully into our hearts and lives.

 

* Simon and Samuel