Romans 1.1-7; Psalm 80.1-8, 18-20; Matthew 1.18 – 25.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place this way… to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’.” (Matthew 1. 18, 22)
The question comes almost casually, at the end of a phone call or when you bump into someone on the street. “Are you ready for Christmas?” What you’re being asked, of course, is whether you’ve sent your cards, got presents for the right people, done the decorations, stockpiled the right food and prepared yourself for the relatives.
Then again, Christmas isn’t like that for all of us. There are some for whom it isn’t part of their culture, religion or non-religion. There are those who just don’t have the money, who have no family and few friends. There are also those who are sick of the whole darned thing, for one reason or another.
So the answer to “are you ready for Christmas?’ might be “yes”, “no”, “almost”, “what?” or “Christmas…bah, humbug!” But even so, we know what the question means. There is a certain set of rituals, symbols and practices that tells us what Christmas is.
It’s easy to assume, therefore, that the question, “Are you ready for the coming of the Christ-child?”, which is how Advent prepares us for the Christian celebration of this great Season, is equally clear – whether the answer is “yes”, “no”, “almost”, “what?” or “Jesus Christ...why should I care?”
But the idea that we know who this Jesus is and what his coming to us portends, especially as "good religious folk", is deeply questioned by our Scripture readings at this time of year, even though we assume they are nice, cosy stories that we know like the back of our hand. (Actually, without looking at it, could you give me an accurate description of the back of your hand? I bet you couldn’t! You get my point.)
Let’s start with Psalm 80. “Oh God of hosts, restore us; let your face shine upon us.” This is a song of lamentation and hope in a time of military defeat for the tiny nation of Judah. The people pray that God will again turn to them and use a ruler in David’s line to lead them to victory. Their assumptions are quite clear. The nation must be vindicated by force, enemies crushed, and the monarchy restored. The Messiah, the “man at your right hand”, will lead the army in battle.
Needless to say, Jesus turned out to be nothing like this. His concern was with ordinary people, not nationalistic jingoism. His power was love (rather than the love of power). He was a prince of peace, not a warlord. He told his followers to love their enemies. His kingship was expressed in foot-washing and service, not military conscription and domination.
For many people, therefore, the proposal that Jesus was Messiah, the hoped-for deliver, was a nonsense, an insult and a disappointment. Which is why he was born into squalor, lived most of his life in obscurity, and died a criminal’s death at the hands of certain religious and political leaders whose plans he most definitely did not endorse.
Were they ready for the Christ? They were sure they were. They had the battle plans all laid out, and then when the Expected One arrived he turned out to be all wrong. It’s as if a beautifully wrapped Christmas gift turned out to be some grubby old nativity scene rather than the latest hot power tool. What a let down.
Receiving the real Jesus, rather than one wrapped up in expectations of power, wealth and a God-on-our-side, is a tough call. It’s safer and more fun, apparently, just to go shopping. Though the fulfilment you get from that is pretty thin, and the cost to people and planet of organising the world into a giant supermarket is massively high.
So what St Paul and St Matthew say, in rather different ways, is that salvation is not the world of greed and self-assertion, it is Christ and his coming to us in vulnerable, ignorable, killable flesh. That is where God is to be found.
Paul shows this by locating himself and his people in a huge story. The book of Romans is his account of how God is at work not in one place, but in all places – among the Jews, among the Gentiles, even at the heart of the mighty and callous Roman Empire, where the Saints, those willing to gamble their lives on Jesus’ upside-down way, put themselves at risk for his sake.
Paul, a good and pious man whose perception of God and the world was completely turned around by a vision of Christ on the Damascus Road, put it like this: Jesus, he said, “was descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” There are two big things to note here. First ‘Son of God’ was the very same term the Roman Emperor used for his son and heir, since the Imperial story was that Caesar was a god. Paul, dangerously, is saying that this is not so. There is another king, Jesus – and he rules by changing hearts and minds, not by imposing threats and oaths.
Second, God comes to us in and as Jesus the Christ “according to the flesh”. The Holy Spirit works in and through the fabric of human being and becoming and is incarnate, in total solidarity with our bodied existence. But the Spirit of God also vindicates the cradled and crucified one by raising him beyond death, declaring that life is first and last a gift of God. It is not something that can be ended or limited by us. The love we meet in the Christ-child cannot be extinguished, in spite of all the tragedy we see around us. That is the gospel that promises true joy – not a few baubles on a tree.
Matthew’s concern is to emphasise the same key things as Paul: Davidic descent and the gift of the true Son through God’s Holy Spirit. But he has a problem: Joseph, described unambiguously elsewhere in the Gospels as Jesus’ father. The difficulty is that the line of David is much harder, if not impossible, to trace through Joseph, whose male seed is traditionally regarded as the transmitter of inheritance. But Mary is “only a woman”. According to the understanding of the day, she could not pass on the royal blood on her own. So if this is just Joseph’s son, he is polluted, and if not, he is illegitimate. So it must be Mary and the Holy Spirit who together make Jesus who he is. Joseph becomes a bit of an extra, and Matthew’s ingenious solution to the puzzle is pinned on a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, which in the original Hebrew just refers to “a young woman of marriageable age”.
The story of the virginal conception of Christ as a way of confirming his special-ness as the decisive vehicle of God’s grace in the flesh has solid roots in Christian tradition and in certain biblical texts, though not others. People still argue about it today, usually in the daftest ways. The New Testament writers had no more access to the forensic facts of Jesus’ birth than we do, and they were not writing modern scientific statements about biological process, which is how both fundamentalist Christians and celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins’ acolytes seem to construe it all. To think that is to miss the point – spectacularly.
What the biblical accounts are saying is that people have discovered, to their utter astonishment, that this Jesus (and not some warrior-king) is God’s person, God’s way, God’s promise of salvation (final wholeness) among us. God does not cancel out humanity, God fulfils and perfects it. There’s no contradiction. It’s not as if God and humanity are two kind of ‘stuff’ and that the more you have of one the less you have of the other, and vice versa (though some people have often been prone to that heretical idea.) No, the Word became flesh so that, as the Eastern Church puts it, flesh can become the cradle of God’s perfection.
This is the traditional, orthodox Christian faith. The exact mechanics of it will finally remain beyond our limited comprehension, not because the Christian message is content with ignorance, but because it is founded in the activity of a God whose essence cannot be reduced to ours. It is expressed in history, but goes beyond it. It is conveyed in stories, but not trapped by our imagination.
If on Christmas Day a child received a perfect, working toy but was never allowed to play with it because one lot of people were trying to use it to mend the roof (something it was clearly never intended for), and others were arguing about the wording on the box, we’d think everyone had lost hold of their senses. Yet that is what we have done to the Christian message.
Christ offers to come into our hearts and communities to show us a new way of life that unites us to God, to one another and to the gift of creation. But we are trying to fit Jesus into our usual power-grabbing ways; and we are fighting about whether the stories that tell us who this Jesus is can be made to sound like an instruction manual for building a Messiah out of matchsticks.
Meanwhile, the Christ-child lies silently waiting, yearning, at the edge of our expectations, offering us a love that can never be turned into a commodity to be sold on eBay, or into a theory to make us clever. Jesus is not the gift we were expecting or wanting. To know who he is and how he changes us we need new eyes, a new heart. For he is so much more than we can calculate or imagine. “And they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’.”
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog is at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com
This piece is adapted from the Advent 4 address at St Matthew's Anglican Church, Bethnal Green, London, on 23 December 2007 (http://www.st-matthews.co.uk/).