What the “Christmas package” looks like each year is familiar.
It is neatly wrapped in seasonal decorations, Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, entertaining, a little time off from work and school, and religious services featuring music and drama.
Slight changes in the wrapping occur from year to year, but for the most part the package looks the same.
Some of the lectionary texts that have accompanied the beginning of Advent this year have invited attention to a dimension of Christmas that emphasizes the content of the Christmas package that is sometimes obscured by the wrapping.
These texts have put the familiar parts of the Christmas story – Bethlehem’s manger, shepherds, wise men – in the context of its first hearers’ experience and faith journey.
For example, Zechariah’s prayer of praise at the birth of John (Luke 1:68-70), which draws heavily on the imagery of Isaiah 40, “prepares the way” for a new understanding of God’s relation to history.
The prophet Zephaniah looked beyond the confusion and uncertainty of a coming exile to a time when God would “save the lame and gather the outcast” and “bring them home” (Zephaniah 3:14-20).
A century earlier, Micah had offered an image of a shepherd king, who would come from Bethlehem, who would “feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” and who would “be the one of peace” (Micah 5:2-5).
These texts (and many others like them) point to God’s redemptive work as an essential part of God’s nature – a divine nature that is disclosed and focused as the content of the Christmas package.
The continuity of the God who is disclosed in Jesus Christ and the God who has always been is hard to miss.
Significant parts of the biblical testimony suggest themes that would have shaped the thinking and belief of those who first unwrapped the Christmas package:
- The promise to Abraham that his covenant descendents would “be a blessing” to all mankind (Genesis 12:2).
- The promise to Moses, “I will be with you,” as he embraces the partnership of God’s liberating work (Exodus 3:12).
- The promise to David that his lineage would continue to disclose and be agents of God’s redemptive work (2 Samuel 7:12; Psalm 132:11).
- The features of God’s character that would be operative in this ongoing disclosure would be mercy, compassion and justice.
- The prophetic vision of restored community that would be an inclusive realm of peace among all of God’s people.
It is easy to embrace the warmth of the familiar story of the experience of Mary and Joseph in the respective accounts of Luke and Matthew, the journey to Bethlehem’s manger and the visit of the magi.
It is an attractive, captivating and beautifully wrapped package.
It is also easy to let the content of that package fade into the background of our thinking, especially when that content offers an alternative to our first reactions to challenges that feed our fears and insecurities.
The Christmas package is a beautifully wrapped gift and an effective vehicle for the content that is inside. That content is an evolving disclosure that the great “I Am” of Moses’ Sinai experience becomes the humble “here I am” of Bethlehem’s manger.
The Christmas package arrives this year in its familiar wrapping, but also with its invitation to look inside at the disclosure of who God is and the lens that disclosure provides through which to see even this year’s challenges, fears and insecurities.
Will we respond to the gift of Christmas as though we have admired but not looked inside its wrapping, or with the transformed view of reality its content calls us toward?
It’s hard not to believe much is at stake in our choice, especially this year.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
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