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How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The true meaning of Luke’s Christmas, part 6

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.

The story concludes forty days after the birth when Jesus is taken to be presented to the Lord in the temple. The occasion is marked by two further statements—one direct, the other very brief and indirect—regarding the significance of this child.

Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Lk. 2:29-32) is an exquisite synopsis of Isaiah’s prophecies—and of Isaiah 52:1-10 in particular—regarding the restoration of Israel following the judgment of exile:

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. (Lk. 2:29-32 ESV)

Simeon has been looking for the “consolation” or “comforting” (paraklēsis) of Israel that is proclaimed in Isaiah 40:1: “Comfort, comfort (parakeleite) my people, says God.” The “salvation” that he has seen is not the salvation of humanity; it is the salvation of Israel (cf. Is. 40:5; 52:10). It is a salvation “prepared in the presence of all peoples”, just as Isaiah spoke of the “redemption of Jerusalem” as a demonstration of divine strength “before the eyes of all the nations” (Is. 52:10). It is in this sense a “light of revelation for the nations”: the restoration of the people following the catastrophe of divine judgment will reveal the power and righteousness of Israel’s God to the nations and consequently will bring glory to Israel. Simeon’s prayer, therefore, has to do with the political-religious status of the people of the creator God amongst the nations of the world—not least vis-à-vis the powerful nation that currently lorded it over Israel.

Simeon then makes a sombre prediction. Jesus will be responsible for the falling and rising of many in Israel; he will be a “sign that speaks against” so that the thoughts of many hearts may be disclosed. Jesus would be a controversial, provocative and dangerous presence in Israel, embodying both judgment and salvation. He will later tell a parable about the wicked tenants of a vineyard, who beat the owner’s servants and finally kill his son. The owner will come and destroy those tenants—Jesus has in mind the destruction of the Jewish war—and give the vineyard to others. He then quotes a verse from Psalm 118 about a stone that is rejected by the builders and warns that “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Lk. 20:17-18). Simeon’s prophecy has the same outcomes in view.

Finally, the aged prophetess Anna approaches the child. She “confesses openly” (anthōmologeito) to God and then begins to “speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:36-38). The verb anthōmologeomai occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and is rare in the Septuagint. But it is found at the close of Psalm 78 LXX (=Psalm 79) to express public thanksgiving for the restoration of Jerusalem after it had been defiled by the nations. The Psalm expresses perfectly the concerns that Simeon and Anna would have had regarding the standing of Israel in the eyes of the nations:

Help us, O God our savior; for the sake of the glory of your name, O Lord, rescue us, and atone for our sins, for the sake of your name, so that the nations may not say, “Where is their God?”— and let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your slaves be known among the nations before our eyes. (Ps. 78:9-10 LXX)

These final brief comments on the meaning of Jesus’ birth point emphatically in the direction of a narrative of corporate salvation that has only tangential—though not trivial—relevance for the rest of humanity. Zechariah, Mary, the angels, Simeon and Anna are all singing from the same carol sheet. What is going to happen to the people that now worships the creator God under conditions of brutal pagan occupation? They will be judged for their wickedness, and they will be restored, they will be saved; and this transformation will reveal to the nations the righteousness of Israel’s God.

What I think we celebrate at Christmas, therefore, in the first place, is that distant historical transformation. Of course, modern evangelicalism lacks the historical consciousness—the historical imagination—to grasp the significance and power of the historical event, so for now we will continue to translate it into our cosy abstractions and mythologies; we will continue to domesticate and personalize the story. But I think that both New Testament scholarship and a more general cultural pressure to account critically for the realism of Christ-oriented faith will make it increasingly difficult to sustain the traditional outlook. Sooner or later we will have to come to terms with the narrative-historical boundaries of the Christmas story.