The true meaning of Christmas—as a Christian rather than a pagan celebration—is represented in the popular imagination most commonly by the serene tableau of the radiant baby Jesus in a manger, surrounded by his parents, a few inquisitive cherubs, rustic shepherds, and resplendent wise men, proffering their fabled gifts. Children’s nativity plays introduce a slight blur of movement and some noisy singing, but otherwise it is an overwhelmingly static moment—an ensemble of devout medieval personages, a clumsy arrangement of wooden figures—fixing the presence of the incarnate God. Static and comforting. The fact that representations of the biblical scene are often now banned from public places ought to release a whiff of subversion into the festive air, but even that caustic and disturbing smell is likely to be masked by the heady, sweet traditional scents of Christmas—mulled wine, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sage and onion stuffing oozing from the end of the turkey.
But the Christmas story as it is told in Matthew and Luke is not static. Nor is it particularly comforting. It is a critical episode in a larger tragicomic narrative about the fate of first century Israel. It entertains no salvation for the nations. They feature either as the enemy from which Israel must be delivered or as amazed onlookers who can only glorify God for what he has done on behalf of his people. The Christmas story has very little to do directly with the modern “mythology” of a personal Lord and Saviour. That may seem a mean-spirited, Scrooge-like thing to say, but it has to be said.
Let me hurriedly summarize the evidence…
Zechariah is told by Gabriel that John “will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Lk. 1:16). The quotation from Malachi 4:6 that follows makes it clear that John’s purpose is to call Israel to repentance before the “great and awesome day” of God’s judgment against his people comes—a day of fire, when the arrogant and evildoers will be burnt like stubble (Mal. 4:1). The imagery is picked up in the account of John’s ministry (Lk. 3:9, 16-17).
When the angel tells Joseph in a dream that Mary’s son will “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), he means that he will save Israel from the same sins that Malachi catalogues and from the same destruction of which he warns. There is no reference to Gentiles here.
Jesus is wrapped in “swaddling cloths” (Lk. 2:7) because he represented righteous Israel—in contrast to Ezekiel’s description of sinful Jerusalem: “And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths” (Ezek. 16:4).
The child “Immanuel” in Isaiah is a sign that God will be with his people to deliver them when the Assyrians invade (Is. 7:10-8:10; cf. Matt. 1:23). This is the significance of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit: it is not a means of incarnation but a sign of the presence of YHWH in the midst of his people at a time of eschatological crisis.
The calling of God’s “son” out of Egypt invokes the exodus narrative (Matt. 2:15). Jesus embodies in himself the narrative of Israel’s journey from slavery under pagan rule to a new creation existence in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham.
When Jesus is taken to be presented before the Lord in the temple, the narrative of Israel’s salvation is reinforced, first by Simeon, who announces that the coming salvation will be seen by the nations and will result in “glory to your people Israel”; and then by the prophetess Anna, who speaks of Jesus to “all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:22-38). No personal salvation here, I’m afraid. It may be an eventual implication, but it’s not what the story is about.
Jesus will be king over Israel, in the line of David: “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33). The magi come looking for a new born king of the Jews, whose star they had seen—perhaps a timely conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces (Matt. 2:2).
When many nations are assembled against Jerusalem, a “ruler in Israel” will come from Bethlehem, who will “gather the rest of his brothers” and deliver his people from the invader, and the “remnant of Jacob” will be established amongst the nations (Mic. 4:11-5:9; cf. Matt. 2:6). Herod had the male infants of Bethlehem slaughtered not because he feared the arrival of a personal saviour but because he believed his rule over Israel was threatened.
Mary celebrates the God who saves Israel, who brings down the rich and powerful (in Israel) and raises up the humble and poor (in Israel); he has “helped his servant Israel” out of faithfulness to his promise to Abraham (Lk. 1:46-55). Likewise, Zechariah prophesies following the birth of John, saying that the God of Israel “has visited and redeemed his people” because of his covenant commitments to the descendants of Abraham. Israel will be delivered from the hand of its enemies in order to “serve him without fear” (Lk. 1:68-75).
Finally, the birth of Jesus in the city of David coincided with a registration of the whole empire ordered by Caesar Augustus (Lk. 2:1-7). The good news of Jesus’ birth as “Saviour” and “Lord”, of peace for those in Israel with whom God is pleased (Lk. 2:10-14), clashes with pronouncements concerning the birth of the divine Augustus, who was Son of God, Saviour, Lord, who had brought peace and prosperity to the empire.
So what’s the birth of Jesus all about? I would say this: the numerous interpretive details, mostly drawn from the scriptures, anticipate the destructive war against Rome of AD 66-70 and the extraordinary deliverance of an alternative community of Jews who confess that the true king over God’s people was neither Herod nor Caesar but Jesus.
Merry Christmas, everybody.