Christmas Eve

December 24, 2014
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 9:2-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 96
Reading 3: 
Titus 2:11-14
Reading 4: 
Luke 2:1-20
By David J. Lull

“What God has done and is doing in the world for all peoples” is the theme for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!

 

About the time I was born, and until the end of my second grade, my parents rented a two-story house. My brother and I shared a bedroom on the second floor, as did my two sisters. At Christmas, my parents would decorate a tree in the living room on the first floor. On Christmas Eve, they gave us strict instructions not to go downstairs. We were to remain in our bedrooms until the next morning. However, we could not resist the temptation to take a peek. Early in the morning before our parents woke up, the four of us would quietly sneak halfway down the stairs, and look with eyes wide open at the wondrous sight of presents under the glittering tree. It is easy to recall our innocent sense of wonder and joy so many years ago!

Many adults experience wonder and joy on Christmas Eve only in memories of childhood long past, or in the eyes, voices, and excitement of the children around them. What alternatives do adults have to reliving their past and vicariously feeling wonder and joy through children on Christmas Eve? I enjoy the infectious joyfulness of children in this season. But I yearn for the things that Amy Grant sings about in “My Grown-up Christmas List” (http://www.metrolyrics.com/lyrics/135704/Amy_Grant/Grown_-_up_Christmas_List):

 

Do you remember me?

I sat upon your knee.

I wrote to you with childhood fantasies.

Well I’m all grown up now,

And still need help somehow.

I’m not a child,

but my heart still can dream.

 

So here’s my lifelong wish,

my grown-up Christmas list,

not for myself,

but for a world in need:

 

No more lives torn apart,

and wars would never start.

Time would heal all hearts,

and everyone would have a friend.

Right would always win,

and love would never end.

This is my grown-up Christmas list.

 

As children we believed

the grandest sight to see

was something lovely

wrapped beneath the tree.

Well heaven surely knows

that packages and bows

can never heal

a hurting human soul.

 

No more lives torn apart,

and wars would never start.

Time would heal all hearts,

and everyone would have a friend.

Right would always win,

and love would never end.

This is my grown-up Christmas list.

 

What is this illusion called

the innocence of youth?

Maybe only in that blind belief

can we ever find the truth!

 

There’d be ...

No more lives torn apart,

and wars would never start.

Time would heal all hearts,

and everyone would have a friend.

Right would always win,

and love would never end.

 

Oh, this is my grown-up Christmas list.

Oh, this is my only Christmas wish.

This is my grown-up Christmas List!

 

I think Amy Grant’s song captures well the message of today’s scripture readings!

 

The prophet Isaiah envisions a time of freedom from oppression, disarming the oppressor, and the end of war—not only of the most recent war with Assyria, but also of all war. However, after a temporary pause in war, Assyrian aggression eventually destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the second half of the 8th century bce. After the Assyrians, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and sent Judeans into exile for most of the 6th century bce. In the last decades of the 6th century, the Persians liberated exiled Judeans from the Babylonians and helped rebuild Jerusalem. Thus, the end of war was only a temporary reality—but one that captured the prophet’s imagination of what was always possible, because it is always God’s vision for the world. The prophet’s hope was based on facts on the ground, temporary as they were.

In addition, Isaiah based hope on the birth of a “son.” This “son” was to be a king, the heir to King David’s kingdom. People would call him a powerful, wise peacemaker, because he would uphold the kingdom with justice and righteousness forever. “Forever,” as it turned out, was shorter than Isaiah envisioned it! The Davidic kingship would end and come under Greek, Syrian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman rulers. Secular Jews, mostly from Europe, Russia, and America and, therefore, not native to the land, govern today’s “Israel,” with military and economic domination, instead of with justice and righteousness. Isaiah’s prophetic imagination was not realized.

Nevertheless, babies do bring hope! With each infant, we wonder and hope, “Will this new life bring truth, beauty, goodness, and love into our lives and into the world? Will this child bring peace and justice into our world? Will this baby girl or boy end violence in her or his home, school, and community? Will this infant grow up to prevent some new war from starting?” More often, smaller but still important hopes seize our imagination as we anticipate with joy this baby’s first steps and first words that will lead to unforeseen adventures!

A baby is born and our eyes open to new life all around us. We notice new life teaming in seas, lakes, and rivers. We find pleasure in the fields and meadows that sprout new shoots of grass and flowers, wheat and corn, and, ah, the strawberries! We rejoice when trees spring alive with new greenery after a long winter. A baby is born and the earth and everything in it rejoices at the appearance of new life!

Today’s psalm says that the earth and everything in it rejoices because God is coming to judge the earth. With the psalmist, we sing songs of praise in full hope God “will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with God’s truth.” We remember that God looked upon the world God created, and everything in it, and announced, “It is very good!”

We don’t know what hopes Jesus’ parents, family, and friends had for the baby Jesus. We only know what hope others saw in Jesus’ adult life long after Roman and Judean authorities executed him by crucifixion. the hope that Jesus Christ would fulfill the Greek ideal of teaching people how to live out the cardinal virtues of self-control, justice, and piety “in the present age” seized the imagination of the author of the letter to Titus, near the end of the “apostolic age.” The author of this letter began by describing the goal of “education in the pursuit of virtue” negatively: renounce impiety and worldly desires. The latter were “lawless,” in the sense that they were unrestrained by norms of morality and decency. Impiety took many forms, but common to all of its forms were the failure to give proper honor to true gods and giving improper honors to those who were not gods. When readers of the letter to Titus became believers in Christ, they learned that the Roman imperial system of honoring the emperor and Greco-Roman ancestral gods was a problematic form of misplaced piety. For one thing, the emperors were well known for living lives full of “worldly desires.” Their “family values” included infanticide, fratricide, matricide, incest, and adultery. Believers in Christ renounced such “impiety and worldly desires.”

On the positive side, believers in Christ learned, through the “grace of God,” to restrain their desires, do acts of justice, and practice true piety. Today’s reading focuses on the latter. The practice of true piety meant believing that Christ, not the emperor and ancestral Greco-Roman gods, was the appearance or manifestation of God’s “grace”—that is, God’s favor and benefactions, the foremost being “salvation.” As such, Christ, not the emperor and ancestral Greco-Roman gods, was “our great God and Savior.”

Roman imperial propaganda portrayed the emperor as giving himself for the people—indeed, for the whole world. The reality, however, was that the emperor exploited the people of the world for the sake of Rome and the emperor’s worldly desires. In contrast, the gospel proclaimed that God’s gracious favor—salvation for everyone—had appeared in “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us.” The Roman emperor subdued the people of the world through superior military “virtues” and control of the global economy. But Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sake,” through his own practice of self-control, justice, and piety, “in order that he might liberate us from every kind of lawlessness and purify for himself a people who are his own and are eager to do good deeds” [my own translation of 2.14].

The translation of Titus 2.13 is debated. The problem is whether “our” applies to both “great God” and “savior,” and whether both titles apply to “Jesus Christ.” In other words, it says either that “Jesus Christ” is “our great God and Savior,” or it distinguishes between “the great God” and “our savior, Jesus Christ.” Elsewhere, the letter’s author subordinates Christ to God (1.3, 4 and 3.3-7). Either way, the emphasis is on “Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sake….” The combination of “great God” and “gave himself” would have been inconceivable in the Greco-Roman world and for most of the history of Christian doctrine.

Who would have thought that this hope would spring from the birth of the baby Jesus—namely, that the baby Jesus would become “our savior, who gave himself for us,” and become “the great God”? No one could have foreseen that this would be this peasant Galilean child’s future—indeed, that “anything good” could have “come out of Nazareth” (John 1.46)! It was only by looking back, as post-Easter believers, that Jesus’ followers could see that this hope should be placed on this particular infant.

That is what Luke’s Christmas story does. It puts a very “grownup” hope on the baby Jesus. This baby, like our “grownup” hope, is born under difficult circumstances. Jesus was born into a world that Caesar Augustus made safe, secure, and prosperous—for the Romans and, to some extent, the conquered people in the Roman Empire. An inscription in Priene (in Western Asia Minor, which is in modern Turkey) reads: “the people [dedicate this temple] to Athena … and to the world-conqueror Caesar, son of god, the god Augustus” (4th - 2nd century bce). A proclamation, issued in Priene in 9 bce, reads: “…the most divine Caesar…the beginning of everything…gave a new look to the whole world…the beginning of life…providence…brought to life the most perfect good…filled with virtues for the benefit of humankind…a savior…who brought an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euangelia]…the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euangelia] in him….”

Luke could not directly portray the birth of Jesus in terms that would eclipse the birth of the great Augustus. The evangelist wrote this Gospel for aristocratic gentiles (Lk 1.1-4 and Acts 1.1) during the reign of Emperor Domitian who, cruel and vain, required everyone to call him “Lord and God” and wanted to be known as a world conqueror like his predecessors. Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth identifies Jesus and his family as subjects of the Roman Emperor, and specifically of Rome’s power to levy taxes. A (fictional) census served to move Jesus’ Galilean parents to Bethlehem in Judea, the “city of David.” That, in turn, showed Jesus’ true identity as the heir to David’s kingdom. In Jesus’ followers’ mind, Jesus’ birth fulfilled Isaiah’s prophetic imagination that a “son” was to rule David’s kingdom with justice and righteousness “forever.”

The contrast with Caesar Augustus—and King David—could not be greater! Both had formed and maintained geo-political kingdoms through military victories. Jesus’ non-military “victories” were of the “spiritual” and “moral” kind: healing the sick, welcoming the marginalized, and remaining faithful to God even to the point of death. During his lifetime, he “ruled” over a “kingdom” that consisted of twelve disciples and an unknown number of followers (enough to catch the attention of the Roman authorities in Galilee and Judea and make them nervous about a possible popular uprising). After his death, his followers preached a gospel about him from Jerusalem to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). It proclaimed Pax Christi to everyone living under Pax Romana!

This is a very “grownup” imagination! It challenges every attempt to honor false gods and to find ultimate peace and happiness in “worldly desires.” Isaiah and Luke offer hope in the form of prophetic imaginations of a world of peace with justice for everyone. Enter this world with eyes wide open to geo-political realities and with your heart and mind open to God’s calling and grace in Jesus Christ.

 

For those of you who wish to consult study Bibles, I recommend the following:

  • The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, ed. Walter J. Harrelson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).

  • HarperCollins Study Bible: NRSV with the Apocryphal/ Deuterocanonical Books, Revised & Updated Edition, ed. Harold W. Attridge et al. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006).

  • The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

 

For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Isaiah 9.1-7, I recommend the following:

 

For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Psalm 96, I recommend the following:

  • The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:1064-67.

  • Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, eds. Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page, and Matthew J. M. Coomber (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 576-79.

  • Marti J. Steussy, Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 166-68.

  • The Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (London: SPCK; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992 [I had no access to the 1998 expanded edition]), 137-44.

  • NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Psalms+96 (or BibleWorks)

 

For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Titus 2.11-14, I recommend the following:

  • The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 11:869-74.

  • Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, eds. Margaret P. Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 608-09.

  • NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Titus+2 (or BibleWorks).

 

For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Luke 2, I recommend the following:

  • Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Image Books, a division of Doubleday, 1979/1977), 393-434.

  • François Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on Luke 1:1-9:50, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 79-94.

  • The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 9:62-67.

  • Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, eds. Margaret P. Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 219-22.

  • Global Bible Commentary, eds. Daniel Patte and Teresa Okure (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 389.

  • NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Luke+2 (or BibleWorks).

 

David J. Lull, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College), a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, David taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature. As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.