Embedded in the familiar story of the birth of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel are a number of resonant prophetic and poetic statements: the announcements to Zechariah and Mary, Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus, and the angel’s message to the shepherds. They interpret the birth as a singular sign that the God of Israel was about to overturn the existing political-religious order of things. Israel’s metaphorical state of exile would be brought to an end; a corrupt elite in Israel would be brought down, the humble poor would be lifted up; a new king would bring peace to a people terrorized by its enemies; and he would reign over this redeemed people throughout the coming ages. This is not a story of the beginning of personal salvation; it is not the story of God taking on human flesh in order to save mankind. We need to clear our minds. It is the story of the birth of an exceptional king, through whose agency God would save his people from the disastrous consequences of their sins.
During the reign of the god and saviour Caesar Augustus Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to be registered. While they were there, Mary gave birth to a son. She wrapped him in old cloths and put him in a feeding trough where the animals were kept because the house was overcrowded.
Even more remote from the centres of imperial power—by a few barren hillsides—a group of shepherds were visited by an angel, who told them about the birth of Israel’s royal saviour, appropriately in the city of David. This was a good news diametrically opposed to the “gospel” of salvation, prosperity and peace supposedly vouchsafed by the divine Augustus. They would find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a feeding trough.
The Benedictus of Zechariah, like Mary’s Magnificat, is a pastiche of Old Testament phrases and imagery celebrating the fact that the God of Israel is acting to transform the socio-political circumstances of his people. A previous commentary post from Christmas 2006 lists the most obvious points of reference. Psalm 106 is especially important. It recounts God’s faithfulness towards his disobedient people at the time of the exodus and entry into Canaan. His anger is kindled against them; he “gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them”; their enemies oppressed them; nevertheless, he “remembered his covenant” and had mercy on them (Ps. 106:40-46).
Mary’s extraordinary hymn of praise to God her saviour gives us an excellent opportunity to consider the question of the relation between the individual and the national in Luke’s Christmas narrative. The point I have been trying to make in these Christmas posts is that the true-meaning-of-Christmas cannot be articulated in terms of individual salvation—or, for that matter, in the simple incarnational formula of God becoming man at Christmas. If the miraculous conception of Jesus in Luke and Matthew is a sign of anything, it is—in keeping with the thrust of the stories generally—a sign of the coming judgment and kingdom. (Coincidentally, I see that Daniel Kirk is going through Matthew’s birth narratives in a similar vein.) The birth stories, in a multiplicity of ways, point to events that will transform the standing of the people of God amongst the nations: judgment, renewal, and the “defeat” of Israel’s enemies.
Six months later the angel is back. According to Luke’s matter-of-fact account Gabriel is sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth. She is a virgin engaged to a man from the house of David called Joseph. The girl’s name is Mary. With the customary angelic formalities Gabriel tells Mary that she has no need to be afraid because she has “found favour with God”.
A couple of statements that I heard in church last week have stuck in my head (along with the tune of the little drummer boy, which I now can’t get rid of). The first was in a song by someone whose name I forget that was played during the collection—a ludicrous line about the little boy Jesus staring up at the stars and remembering how he had made them all. That was another reason to look at what John has to say about the creative logos.
Not least at this time of year we bring a lot of conventional expectations to the reading of the prologue to John’s Gospel. We hear a familiar story of God sending his pre-existent Son into the world so that people might believe in him and become “children of God”. In order to sustain that reading we filter out rather a lot that’s in the text, in addition to all the tacit literary knowledge that is excluded simply because we are complacent modern readers.
Part of what I want to try to do here, therefore, is to let some of the textual and contextual detail back in to see if the passage reads any differently. But I have to say that I am also motivated by a concern not to let John’s idiosyncratic Gospel stand as a stumbling-block to the task of reading the New Testament historically. This is not about debunking the Christmas stories; it is part of a search for an evangelical reading of the New Testament that takes its historical contingency seriously.
Frank Viola has an interesting interview with “New Testament Scholar Scot McKnight”, who is all over the place at the moment, about his book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow. Scot makes the point in the interview that it is impossible to do justice to the book in such a short space—and it is, of course, equally impossible to do justice to Scot by addressing his argument in such an indirect fashion and for frankly ulterior purposes. But in order to answer a question regarding how his position relates to my post on Brian McLaren and evangelicalism and to clarify some rather limited areas of disagreement with Scot (for those who are interested) I will make a few cautious comments.
In one of his Q&R posts Brian McLaren responds to the question: “I appreciate your person and work, but why are you still an evangelical, emergent or not?” The argument, for the most part, is that evangelicalism is Brian’s heritage and that he has had no compelling reason so far to dissociate himself from it, though he has certainly considered taking such a step. His hope is that in the long run there will be a grassroots convergence of “progressive Roman Catholics, progressive Evangelicals, missional Mainline Protestants, and forward-thinking sectors of the African-American, Asian, Latino, and other churches”.
For some unaccountable reason Michael Jackson’s The Little Drummer Boy has always been one of my favourite Christmas songs. I make no apologies. But the video for this version of the song by Bob Dylan from last year, which I found on Francis Beckwith’s blog, is rather more poignant—in an oddly dated, beautiful, aristocratic way which is hard to explain.