by Linda McMillan
I am already disappointed in Christmas. Oh, it’s not because I didn’t get that shiny thing I wanted. I got that. I am disappointed becasue I’ve looked ahead in the Bible and I already know that this story is not going to end the way I wish it would. Mary will be disappointed, the shepherds will be disappointed, everyone who believes that Jesus is really going to change the world — their world of occupation, terror, and foreign domination — will be disappointed.
After Jesus left the world, as the months dragged on in to years, and decades became centuries, the Christian church managed to reshape its view of history so that Jesus changed the world. But, he didn’t change Mary’s world or the world of the shepherds. Beyond a few healing miracles, Jesus didn’t change the world for any of the people who so desperately needed a new one.
It is easy to forget that persecution didn’t begin with Jesus and his followers. The followers of Yahweh who failed to give proper homage to Rome and Rome’s Gods were likely to be arrested, used as slave labor, or worse! There was no Guantanamo Bay, no rule of law. Instead, there was Machaerus, where John was imprisoned, and there were crosses ringing the city of Jerusalem. It was a world where you’d look up and your friend might be gone. Maybe you had been grinding corn and then one would be gone, or perhaps two would be standing in a field and then you’d be alone. Families gathered for meals, but there were people missing: Brothers without brothers, wives without husbands, nephews without uncles, someone just wouldn’t show up for work one day. They’d be gone… There was sadness and there was fear.
Jesus was born into this world. He was a poor boy. He was probably a carpenter like his dad. He taught people how to love, he healed, he comforted, he fed, and like many others, he was crucified and died. But, he did not change the Roman world of the Jews.
Yet, here we are, centuries later, on the road to Jerusalem. By the time you read this, 2.18 billion Christians on this planet will join you and me in celebrating the end of that journey and the birth of Jesus, the so-called saviour of the world.
Yet, this is only one of many journeys we observe. The Bible story began with a journey from innocence to self-knowledge in the third chapter of Genesis when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. The journeys continued as humanity moved from the outlying areas into tribes and cities, into arks, into unknown lands, exiles, and returns… we are nothing if not a people on the move!
When her pregnancy was made known, Mary made a journey to see her cousin Elizabeth.
When it was time to begin his public ministry, Jesus made a journey to see his cousin too, John the Baptist.
And when Jesus’s life was ending, his friends journeyed with him to Jerusalem, and as far as the cross.
It’s almost as if the gift of Christmas is not the birth of a savior as much as it is the gift of a fellow traveler.
Jesus did not come to bring about the change we want, the shiny objects of justice, equity, non-violence, peace… or just the end of the insanity into which children will be born this very day. None of that is settled today any more than it was 20 centuries ago. Jesus is not Santa Claus, after all. He did not come to bring the things we all want, he came to join us on an uncertain journey.
This morning, when I sing Hallelujah — Oh, I’ll sing it so loud! — it will not be because the world is saved once and for all, all well and good. It will be because God in Jesus has joined me on the journey. And joined you too. There may be exiles, or long stretches of desert, there will most surely be twists and unexpected turns in the path, but we are on our way! As for the kingdom — that dream of God where justice rolls down like water and rightness like an ever-flowing stream — we’re on the way! Hallelujah! It’s Christmas and the prince of that kingdom is by our sides!
Merry Christmas… and carry on. We may not be saved yet, but the saviour is with us!
Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China.
Image: Mother and Child, Cambodia, 2015, by Linda McMillan
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Most of my information about the reign of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and conditions in their territories comes from the writings of Josephus, particularly.
Herod may not have been his father’s first choice, but he did go on to have a nice long rule. Violent, sure. But long, and by many standards successful.
Another great resource about Herod is The True Herod by Geza Vermes. Chapter 9 is specifically about Antipas. I find Herod Antipas a fascinating character. This whole book is really worth a read if you love biographical history as I do. .
Matthew 42:40ff… Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
Over the past few days I have had the joy of telling the Christmas Story — the real one — to about 100 Chinese children. I was astounded at the confusion between Jesus and Santa. In every single group — after the wide-eyes and head slapping — someone would ask, “But who is Santa?”
Amos 5:24… But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!