A Christmas Day Essay

What does Christmas mean to me personally? Actually today is not really more significant as a day in the calendar than any other except for the fact that it allows many Christians to concentrate on one day out of all the others and focus on that day when The Christ actually came into this world in human flesh.

That is what the whole Christmas season means to me this year; a focus on the first Advent of Christ and I have been engaged in that for some time. For me it really is a case of Holy Obsession! Being possessed in my spirit by this great event in world history. Or as the Apostle Paul put it, being astonished in utter awe:

Great is the mystery of godliness:

God was manifested in the

flesh…seen by angels, preached

among the nations, believed on in

the world, received up in glory!  

( first letter to Timothy, chapter 3)

By considering what the Biblical narrative tells us about this “great mystery”, including the details of the event itself beginning with the announcements to Mary and Joseph, the journey to Bethlehem, the political context, the ancient promises to Israel fulfilled, and all that follows.

I am still learning the discipline required to not get lost on any of the details, such as the baby and his mother, as important as that is. But by keeping my obsession centered on Jesus Christ and the entire revelation of Him as it unfolds in the Biblical story from beginning to end. Certain selected Christmas music really enhances my obsession at Christmas, another reason why I love the Advent Season. Besides my all time favorite, which is to listen to Handel’s Messiah at this season (at least once), there are certain others that have become very special.

Several years ago my daughter gave us a Christmas album by the Irish Tenors. Of all the wonderful songs on that album, my favorite has become their version of “The Holy City”. I remember my dear Mother singing this song in Church more than once. The text is based on a ‘dream so fair’ that contains three different scenes. The first, is the glad occasion of Jesus riding into Jerusalem as the children sing Hosannah or what is now celebrated as Palm Sunday. The second scene is a very somber one which ends in the “shadow of a cross”. The final vision is of the New Jerusalem, the eternal vision of John’s Revelation, chapters 21 and 22. Listen to the music and see if you can sense the same “holy obsession” that I do on this Christmas day, 2010. And may I wish all those in the weblog family, a very obsessed Christmas!

Another take on the True Community that we all are created to long for is represented in this song written and sung by an old favorite, Squire Parsons. There is just one minor adjustment that I would call your attention to, but for me it is an extremely important one; the pictures that were chosen for this video. 

According to the Biblical narrative, one of the essential elements of Jesus Christ identity has to do with his radical reconstitution of major elements of the Old Covenant faith tradition. Such integral factors as the Temple, the Law, the Priesthood, were reinterpreted by Him in such a way to announce that what these elements foreshadowed in the past, He himself was their ultimate fulfillment. This is what caused his most heated conflict with the institutional religious leaders and ultimately led to his crucifixion “outside the camp”. (see Hebrews 13: 12-14)

So when Squire Parsons sings about Beulah land, is he thinking of the old city of Jerusalem in Israel or is he longing for the Jerusalem that is above? The heavenly Zion, the eternal city of God, which is that community that God has prepared to satisfy all our longings. For me, it is obviously the one the Apostle John saw and testified to us about in the penultimate chapter of the Bible.

The Gift of TORAH (Jerusalem May 2007)

There will be many Christians joining the People of Israel at the wailing wall celebration tonight. For a video of Shavuot 2007 at Jerusalem click the link above.

I found this message by Rabbi Max Fox at Jewish Times of South Jersey today: ” Shavuot is not only the shortest festival in duration, but is devoid of any symbols or mitzvot that must be fulfilled. Yet, Shavuot is not a minor holiday. This festival celebrates “Z’man Matan Toratenu”, the giving of Torah on Mt.Sinai.” He continues saying,

Shavuot celebrates the birthday of our Jewish Faith- a Faith that has given meaning and purpose to our existence. Unlike the other holidays, Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah, and there is no symbol for Torah. There is only one way to celebrate this festival that commemorates that awesome moment in history when G-d revealed Himself and gave our People a most precious gift the Torah. And that is, by practicing and living in accordance with the precepts and moral teachings of  the Torah. . .the true celebration of Shavuot lasts more than a day or week. It should be observed 365 days a year and in a lifetime of practicing and living a life of Torah.

As the great Saadyah said, ‘ Our People are a nation only by virtue of the Torah’.

The rabbi trained by the great Gamaliel, Saul of Tarsus would have thoroughly agreed with these statements. In fact much of what he tells us in his writings almost two thousand years ago shows the same great respect and praise for Torah and its gift to the Jewish people. He asked a pointed question at one point: “What advantage then has the Jew?” And he answers immediately his own question by stating, ” Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of G-d”.

We said earlier that Saul was very zealous for the Law, making himself as a Pharisee, personally responsible as guardian for its purity exactly because he rightly understood what a precious gift it was and that it was indeed central to the very existence of the Jewish nation.

Because men like Rabbi Fox and Saul of Tarsus understood that the gift to Israel was in turn to bless the Gentile nations as well with what I believe to be the highest moral and ethical standard even known to Adam’s race, non-Jews should celebrate with Israel this holiday and indeed many will do so even in Jerusalem.

But of course Saul became known as Paul, the Christian Apostle to the Gentiles. And in the very letter to the Romans, quoted from above, he goes on to develop a precise thesis. And this is not only highly practical and precisely aimed at the way we live our lives seeking to be approved by G-d but also seeking to be the very best world-citizen we can be. For Paul also knew of a yet future Day taught in the Law and the Prophets, when humankind would be held responsible for their deeds in this life on earth. Here is only one example of his teaching: “The righteous judgment of G-d, who will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor,and immortality. But to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness- indignation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

Made in the image of G-d Himself, and for the purpose of living in harmony with the Creator and bringing praise and honor to Him, it makes all the sense in the world that conformity to the Law of G-d would not only guide humankind to fulfill that role but would in turn produce untold bliss and delight fulfilling the good and perfect will of G-d.

Paul’s thesis and thus his life following and serving Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Anointed One of G-d made perfect sense to this zealous defender of the Law. It goes like this, “The commandment which was to bring life, I found to bring death. . .the Law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. . .for sin, that it might appear to sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment  might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.”

Paul’s thesis is the Law, precious gift that it is, can never on this earth produce the godly living that is harmony with G-d and our fellow human beings and the problem is NOT with the Law, which as he says numerous times, is perfect, and holy. Its greatest worth is not only to give the world the highest moral and ethical standard but also to reveal to us our basic human predicament: the predicament of our very nature which because of rebellion, can NOT keep the Law.

Listen to what he says, as he sums up what I believe is the situation not only of the non-religious but also of religious Jews and Gentiles alike: “What I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; (remember the words today of Rabbi Fox) but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the Law that it is good. . .For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.”  

So for Saul, now Paul, if we were ever to be delivered from this human predicament, G-d Himself would have to do it for us. He would have to send someone from “beyond” the race of Adam who Himself could obey the Law perfectly. And that is the other half of the Apostle’s thesis and basis of all his letters. To the Christian churches of Galatia, for example, he wrote in relation to the promises made to Father Abraham and his seed, “Is the Law then against the promises of G-d?” And emphatically replies, “certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the Law.”

“But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the Law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the Law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

So as a Christian, I celebrate with the Jewish People tonight, thanking G-d that the gift of Torah was indeed at a very special moment considered by some as the “birthday” of the Nation, given through Moses, the servant of G-d. And I express for all Christians our great debt to the Jewish People for preserving this priceless treasure for the rest of us. We celebrate tonight Chavuot but soon we will also celebrate the Christian Pentecost.

There remains then at least one post for me to explain why the Apostle Paul had absolutely no trouble seeing how the two celebrations are in fact one. One parting thought from Paul, also in the letter to the Galatians:

“When we were children, (we) were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fulness of the time had come,  G-d sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons”.

Shavuot 2012 is Sunday, May 27th, same as Pentecost Sunday this year!