Christmas isn't general: It's Jewish

The commercializing of Christmas offends many—so many, in fact, that major corporations have sponsored endless movies and television shows bemoaning the…commercializing of Christmas. (One can see the trend at least as far back as Miracle on 34th Street, a movie released in 1947.)

“Christmas isn’t just about food and drink and gifts!” cry the actors in between advertisements for food and drink and gifts. “It’s about—” well, what?

Generic good things, usually: love, peace, family, light, quiet, and snow. But the true meaning of Christmas shouldn’t be buried under this nice, soft blanket of platitudes. Christmas isn’t about goodness-in-general. In fact, Christmas is very…Jewish.

Despite the beauty of Christina Rossetti’s poem, the first Christmas didn’t occur amid a bleak winter. The wise men, T. S. Eliot and Lancelot Andrewes notwithstanding, likely didn’t have a “cold coming” in the worst part of the year. And there weren’t Christmas trees alit with candles, and Yule logs, and holly and ivy—all artifacts of northern European folklore.

No, Christmas came very Jewishly, in the Middle East, as the Gospel according to Matthew shows us (in chapter two). It came to the particular Jewish town of Bethlehem, known as “the city of David.”

Now, that might not mean much to you, but it means everything in a Jewish context. David was the greatest king in Israel’s history—so great that his symbolic star adorns the flag of Israel today—and is the one on whom Jews have pinned their hopes for centuries. The Jewish God promised to restore the throne of David, and thus the fortunes of the Jews. So if a big story begins in Bethlehem, David’s hometown, it’s off to a good start.

The story also features angels—messengers of God—who bring a very Jewish message. “Unto you is born today in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” But that needs a little translating.

“To you is born today in the city of David a Saviour”—one who will save Israel from oppression and weakness—”which is Messiah.” “Christ” is Greek for the Hebrew word meshiah, “anointed one.” Anointed ones were major figures in Israel—mostly kings and priests—who were ordained to their offices in ceremonies that included being touched, or anointed, with holy oil, a sign of God’s Spirit resting on them. And this One is the Messiah, the One who will accomplish God’s will.

Indeed, he is called “the Lord”—which is actually shocking in a Jewish context, since “the Lord” normally refers to Yahweh, Israel’s God. So how can this One, born (and therefore human) be also “the Lord”? The whole rest of the Gospel will trace out that mystery.

“And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host”—typical of big doings in Jewish scripture—“praising God and singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased.’” Again, a little translation helps. “Glory” means “God will make Godself fully known in this incident.” And “peace” means, yes, shalom, Hebrew for flourishing: the whole world, not just Israel, becoming what God started it off being in the Garden of Eden.

The centre of the angelic message does not, however, correspond to Jewish expectations. In fact, here is where it becomes peculiarly Christian. “And this will be a sign [of God’s work] to you: You will find the baby wrapped [as all babies typically would have been] in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger [as no babies typically would have been].”

Here, in fact, is the beginning of the scandal, God becoming human, and a poor, no-account human at that—a scandal that will climax in God dying as a human, and a poor, no-account human at that. And here is where Jews and Christians generally part company. Jews retreat to the safe, common ground of Yuletide and Hanukkah generalizations about light and love and family and faithfulness while Christians draw as close as we can to that little figure in the hay, the one we believe is the Messiah Child.

Christmas can bring us together, yes. But the actual Christmas story also arrives as a wedge. It forces us to choose what to make of the angels’ song—the whole song. Will we receive God’s great, challenging Gift? Or will we choose to focus on the wrappings?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).