It is the time of the advent! I asked what I should remind myself of this advent?
Over the course of the season many of us will revisit the birth narratives. It is my hope that, despite the familiarity of these stories, we will all, in various ways, be enchanted by them and discover afresh their power and potential to profoundly reshape our lives leading to new commitments.
It is also my hope that we will read them in conversation with issues and events that grip our minds and lives at this time. It is the context that opens one up to a process in which new meaning and understanding of the stories might emerge. Only in specific contexts will the biblical text come with exemplary purpose and power that leads to transformation of lives and guides us to participate in God’s liberative action in Christ.
I would like to call attention to a couple of issues this advent season.
First, a close and careful study of the birth narratives reveals the fact the narratives are set in the midst of much political upheaval. We hear of the movements of people, taxation, census taking, emperors and kings. The stories mention the political mass murder of innocent children by one who wants to remain in power at any cost.
Issues concerning shelter, food, clothing, politics, death of children, assassinations and population control are all theological questions requiring theological responses.
This teaches us that the birth of Christ is an undeniable affirmation that the locus of God’s saving presence is set amidst the physical and tangible plane of turbulent history, of messy politics, and of ruthless economics.
Who wants to be reminded of the many troubling issues confronting the world, our society, our churches or even our congregations and families at a time like Christmas?
Christmas has become a time of privatised peace, joy, and freedom from guilt which, we are assured, leads us to an ahistorical life in eternity.
However, the birth narratives compel us to remember that Jesus’ birth was set in the midst of political disorders, mass murders, migration and power hungry leaders. Will these become elements of our Christmas sermons?
This reminds me also that our God is not removed from the happenings of this world, indifferent and apathetic. This God is very much in control, is observant of all that is happening – the good and the bad – and will work towards changing it.
Isaiah draws on the dramatic image of a woman in labour to describe how God will assure us that new life will emerge, that God will accomplish the work long conceived in God’s mind (42:14b – But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.).
God calls us to listen, to see and take note, and join God in the task of transforming the world. To be a follower of Christ is more than just the proclamation of faith – it also involves a radical transformation into the likeness of Christ. Along with Paul we are invited to say, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19).
Second, the Luke version informs us that the shepherds – people at work keeping a sleepless night watch –were the first recipients of the good news of Jesus’ birth. They are the inheritors of God’s new life and its first messengers.
This scene brings a radical critique of those who separate religion from labour and spirituality from the daily chores of life and struggles for wholeness of life. Something unheard of takes place; angels appear in the midst of a stinking sheepfold and sweating shepherds. The separation between the sacred and the secular is broken down. The place of work becomes the place where God’s peace is announced. There can be no glory to God in the highest unless there is glory in the high streets and the alleys of our cities and towns.
The birth narratives of Christ radically challenge a spirituality that is pursued in one’s private isolation from the masses. If the joy and peace proclaimed at Christ’s birth are integrally related to the life and struggles of people, then we can boldly affirm that the peace Christ offers is a peace inextricably connected with justice and wholeness of life for all.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel, open my mind and my heart to see your world—its hurts and its triumphs. Lead me, guide me, heal me and use me to help restore your world.
Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon
Coordinator of Studies, Old Testament
Pilgrim Theological College