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Happy New Creation!

Happy New Years!!!

How nice. Whoop-de-doo. The calendar went back to January 1st. Alert the media. Break out the fireworks. Dance in the streets. Bring coats and mittens, it’s cold outside. 

Why do we make such a big to-do over New Year’s Day? Isn’t it just a random date marking one more trip around the sun on a cosmic speck with no innate purpose other than breaking up the monotony of our days? 

Quick Answer: No. New Year’s Day is much more than that and always has been. 

Let’s look today at one of several important things that the idea of a New Year’s Day has provided over the ages: A point of assessment, repentance, and renewal… what many ancients regarded as a New Creation.   

 

The Cosmic Reset Button

The Ancient peoples of the Biblical world viewed New Year’s Day as a cosmic reset button on creation and life. Each cycle of seasons, however, defined from place to place, is a cycle of life, and there is wisdom not only in hoping for a renewal of that cycle but also for self-assessment in one’s place in the pattern. 

For me, born and raised in New England, school started with Fall’s ‘death,’ was exciting through to Christmas Holidays, including New Year’s Day, and then droned on through winter’s ‘languish.’ In March the world sprouted hope with spring’s ‘newness,’ and June delivered us to freedom in summer’s ‘bounty,’ until we had our fill of it, and looked forward again to school friends and change in Fall’s ‘death’ again. 

Our relationship to the world and many of our cultural values were shaped by this cycle as it was lived out in that region. New Year’s Day, for us, was established at the first of a fresh month after the winter solstice; the turning of the days from increasing darkness to growing light. It came in the quiet between harvest and planting when our minds were free to consider our ways from the last cycle and to plan our processes for the next. It is a time of evaluation of ourselves, to ask honestly in the doldrums of winter, “How am I doing?” and “What do I need to change about myself and my life?”

 

Creation and New Creation

Far from being stories about where all the stuff came from, Ancient stories of creation were designed, in one way or another, to educate the community about the WHO (worship), the WHAT (right pattern), and the WHY (reason for being) of life in the existing created order. The idea is plain, if you know how things work and discipline yourself to maintain fundamental principles of life, you radically improve your chances of surviving and thriving. 

Thus, ancient people sought to understand the way of things, the way God (or the gods) made the world function so that they could function well within it. They tried to discern and replicate life-sustaining patterns in society so that they could survive and thrive in perpetuity.  They sought patterns that would make society healthy, and allow their people to go on living and reproducing for generation after generation after generation. 

So creation stories were a kind of wisdom literature, and New Year’s Day was a Re-creation day when the sacred pattern of creation was rehearsed, when the sins of the past were recognized and cleansed, and when the patterns of life-sustaining creation were ritually energized for another year. 

 

The Christian Answer to New Creation

The ancients understood something about the cycle of life that is often lost on modern folks. It is something that is important for us to recover and to intentionally hang on to through holiday remembrance—the very idea of recreation, of overcoming the sins of the past, of clearing the slate and starting out again to make ourselves and our world conform to God’s best intentions for us. 

For the pagan, unfortunately, “sin” and “cleansing” had little to do with morality and ethics. They were fixated most on exploiting the rules of ritual to manipulate the power of the gods to fulfill their own human purposes. And they worshipped gods that are not gods. 

In Scripture, we find similar processes of creation and recreation and New Year’s, with more successful patterns, that demanded something deeply personal from the worshipper. This is the natural result of the fact that Biblical creation and recreation pictures are founded on the inspired prophetic revelations of those who came under the authority of the One True Creator of all and not the self-aggrandizing hubris of human leaders and their perverse imaginings about creation.

For the biblical worshipper, time was not merely about keeping the human life cycle going. The One True Creator of all had a plan for His creation and revealed man’s place in this plan in His inspired Word. He made man in His image, to be His representatives in the world. He gave them His Torah to teach them what kind of people they needed to be in order to do the work that He called them to accomplish. Each person is called to wake up to Him and to be transformed into His likeness as they walk through life with Him in a personal relationship of faith and trust. 

There is wisdom, therefore, in establishing a liturgical life cycle that includes time for New Year’s reflection: “This is the path of life revealed by God in His Word. This is how God made things to work. This is God’s purpose for me in His World. How am I doing with God? How am I doing with others? Am I the person He has called me to be? Am I doing what God has called me to do?” 

Pause and reflection are vital components of a healthy life, especially a healthy spiritual life. Rather than continuing unabated on an impulsive life of action and reaction, take a hiatus from life and evaluate. Set your determination that this time things will be better. This time, you will be better.

Happy New Creation!

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Matthew’s Contest of Kings

This is Matthew ‘the Taxman’ Apostle, coming to you live and ringside, bringing you blow-by-blow coverage for this evening’s main event. We’ve got quite the bout for you tonight, folks… a real David and Goliath struggle for power that promoters have dubbed “the Contest of Kings.”

 

The Contestants

Introducing first, the reigning, defending, heavyweight champion of Israel, King Herod ‘the Great’; builder of cities, fortresses, and yes, even our very own beloved Temple in Jerusalem. He is a dangerous enemy, a powerful warrior, a world-class political maneuverer. Herod stands tall as the pseudo-Jewish Hellenizing usurper… a tyrant ruler if ever there was one. 

In his corner with him, we not only have the entire body of leading citizens, Priests, and Scribes but the full backing of the Roman Empire itself…. Stop that booing, folks, the soldiers might hear you! Herod is no Moses… certainly no David… but he intends to hold on to power no matter what it takes.

In the other corner, the challenger… Can this be right? A baby? His name is Jesus, and today he will be fighting out of the little town of Bethlehem. But don’t let his age fool you, he has the pedigree to back up his challenge. David, his ancestor, also fought out of Bethlehem. Rumor has it that Jesus is the virgin-born Son, and the promised Immanuel, the God-King, comes to take up David’s long-abandoned throne. Could this baby be his true heir? We’ll find out tonight. 

In his corner we have… well, it looks like only his parents; they are more than a little nervous. Just moments ago I asked his mother, “Mary, did you know that your baby boy would someday rule the nations?” She pondered and said, “The angels sang when the baby was born.” We also have Joseph ‘the Dreamer’ – a righteous son of David in his own right – embracing the newborn child. 

 

The Referees

And now, here come the wise men stepping into the ring between these two would-be champions… Magi from the east! When power and authority are recognized, these are the priests who seal the deal. These gifted astrologers have seen a star of wonder with royal beauty bright announcing the one born Kings of the Jews, and they have come to worship him. Their arrival to referee this bout should come as no surprise.

And should we be shocked that it is gentiles who have seen this star and wandered far? Was it not the gentile Balaam who first spoke of this star in Numbers 24:17? “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Powerful words, Folks! Powerful words!  

 

Round One

The Magi have turned to Herod. They’ve made their way to the center of power… was it a son of Herod born under this star? I don’t think so! King Herod is troubled by news of the Star that led the Eastern Sages. His whole corner is buzzing over his disquiet. 

This reminds me of 2 Samuel 4:1. When Saul’s son, clinging to his doomed throne, lost all his courage in the fight, Scripture says, “all Israel was dismayed.” Well, Déjà vu, Folks! Here we go again. Herod is looking shaky and his corner doesn’t like it.

 

Round Two

Herod comes out ready to fight, but the Magi are looking for another… one born to the role. But what’s this? Herod is putting on a brave face. This man who killed his own sons when he felt threatened, is promising to help the Magi! The Scribes bring forth the news from sacred prophecies. They’ve gone for Micah 5:2,  “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Ouch! That has to hurt, and the Magi know it. Herod is no shepherd king. No, not at all. In the whole rich tradition of Shepherd leaders like Moses and David, the promises are clear. Ezekiel 34 spells it out. God is a Good Shepherd and He and His Messiah will wage war against the false shepherds of Israel for what they’ve done to the flock of God. Herod is on the ropes and he looks afraid.  

 

Round Three

The bell rings and Herod comes out looking like a new man. He’s making nice with the Magi. What a ploy! He’s got his arm around their shoulders. He says he’s excited by the news. He says he wants to worship this newborn king as well. All they have to do is tell him exactly where to find the little Lord Jesus when they locate him. Don’t believe it Magi! It’s a trick! 

 

Round Four

And now the Magi are off, following that star westward leading straight across the ring through field and fountain, moor and mountain, straight to where the baby lay. And what is this?! I can hardly believe my eyes! The great promises of Scripture are dancing like fireflies. The Magi who passed by Jerusalem for Bethlehem, and passed up Herod for Jesus, have also passed up Herod’s empty shell of a temple to worship at the feet of this babe! They have presented him with temple offerings—Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh… Yes! presents made famous in 1 Kings 10 and 1 & 2 Chronicles 9… presents of renown from ancient tales like Seleucus’ visit to the temple of Apollo at Didyma. 

And there it is, the knockout blow! With those gifts, the Magi have sealed the deal: the young Jesus is our promised King! What a fight, this is certainly one for the history books! 

This is just like Solomon said it would be in Psalm 72:9-15, “May desert tribes bow down before him… May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him…Long may he live; may gold of Sheba be given to him!” 

Isaiah said it too, in chapter 60:1-6, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. … And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.”

 

And the Winner Is…

It’s all over, Folks! Herod never stood a chance! O Come, O Come Immanuel! Ransom captive Israel from the false shepherds. Let weary souls rejoice! Sing Choirs of Angels! They are all going down for the count. Oh, come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace.  Hail the Sun of Righteousness. Come, yes come to Bethlehem!

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Is the Date of Christmas Pagan?

Every year around Christmas time, a post will inevitably appear on social media claiming the celebration of Christmas on December 25th is pagan in nature. The post will likely be suggesting either one of two things: 

  • There was a pagan festival around the Winter Solstice and Christians established December 25th as a date of Jesus’ birth to co-opt the festival away from the pagans. This claim is meant merely as a courteous fyi; a history lesson for the church. Or…
  • That Christmas has pagan roots and has been infiltrated by all manner of pagan rituals and decorations. This latter intention subtly suggests that the church do away with Christmas and purge itself of pagan influence altogether. 

Both claims are interesting but, as is often the case with internet pop history, things typically are not exactly as they seem. In fact, we will see that neither of the proposed options above are historically accurate. In this blog, we will look to answer these questions related to the timing of the Christmas holiday:

  • When was Jesus born?
  • Is Christmas a co-opted pagan holiday?

 

When was Jesus Born? 

Central to this larger question of Christmas and paganism is the date of Jesus’ birth. Was he born on December 25th? The answer is both “yes” and “probably not”… Let me explain. In the early church, calendar keeping was a complicated task. In the first century, there were two major calendar models – the Julian and Jewish calendars. The Julian calendar was based on the solar cycles and was the official calendar of the Roman Empire. The Jewish calendar is a lunar model that follows the phases of the moon. Because the Sun and Moon cycles do not align perfectly, the days and months of particular events were hard to keep track of between the two models.

For early Christians, the problem of date keeping emerged when the church was collectively trying to determine the exact date on the calendar to celebrate Easter (or Pascha). They wanted to celebrate Easter on the exact date of Jesus’ resurrection. But what day was that specifically? Even though the church was separating from the lunar calendar, in order to figure that date out, they had to figure out which day Passover fell in the Jewish calendar the year Jesus died. Oh and to add another wrinkle, what year was Jesus crucified – was it AD30 or AD33? 

Uncertain of whether it was AD 30 or AD 33 – there are arguments made for either – two dates emerged as possible candidates for the Easter celebration – the Western church adopted March 25th and the Eastern church April 6th.

 

Is December 25th Jesus’ birthday?

At this point, you may be asking what does this have to do with Christmas? The answer: ”it doesn’t…at least not yet.” You see, for early Christians, the date of Jesus’ birth was not as important to the liturgical calendar as was the Easter celebration. Nonetheless, there were those who did suggest a date for the birth of Jesus. 

There was a tradition, not supported by the Bible, that great Prophets died on the same day they were conceived. This was known as the idea of the “integral age.” According to William Tighe, it seems this idea was widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ and was adopted by early Christians.1 Applying the notion of integral age to Jesus, if he died on March 25th or April 6th then he must have been conceived on either date. Human pregnancies are generally 9 months…what is 9 months from either date? December 25th and January 6th.

It should be noted before moving on that the date of December 25th is likely not the real date of Jesus’ birth. The reason is simple: in AD 30 or AD 33, the accepted dates of Jesus’ death, the Friday before Passover did not fall on March 25th. Also, there is no evidence to suggest the notion of “integral age” is accurate. It appears to be merely symbolic. Nonetheless, this is an accurate historical account of how the date for Jesus’ birth was determined, but notice that only answers part of the question for us. Yes, the church had a date established but was it also a date they celebrated in the liturgical calendar? To answer, let’s look at the next question. 

 

Is Christmas a Co-opted Pagan Holiday?

The claim that Christmas is either a pagan holiday or was selected as a date to co-opt a pagan holiday, centers around the festival of Sol Invictus – the celebration of the unconquered Sun. It is true that there was ritual worship of the Sun in Roman times. But it should be noted that the connection of any festival to the winter Solstice – the time of year where the sunlight begins to lengthen in the day – did not occur until the Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted it around AD 274. Cult worship of the Sun reached its zenith under Aurelian and it was he who established the date for the festival as December 25th. It should also be noted that Aurelian was no fan of Christianity and it seems very likely that he chose that date because it was significant to Christians – not the other way around.

We know the date for Jesus’ birth was determined very early on in the church’s history but it was not necessarily celebrated until later. Tighe notes that the first reference connecting Jesus’ birth to a feast comes from around AD 380 from a sermon of St. John Chrysostom.2 If we were relying on this evidence alone, then it would be difficult to say Christmas was not established as a response to the pagan festival. However, regardless of when it began to be more formally celebrated in the church, it is safe to assume the date of December 25th as the birth of Jesus was set long before that same date was chosen as the festival of Sol Invictus. When it began to be a more formal celebration in the church is not known. But December 25th was a date determined by the Church very early on because they were more concerned with when Jesus died, not because they were trying to co-opt pagan worship of the Sun. 

 

Conclusion

So was Jesus born on December 25th? “Yes” in the sense that it is evident the early church came to accept Jesus was born on December 25th very early on. But “probably not” in the sense that we can also be fairly certain it wasn’t the actual day he was born. Also, it is quite evident that the church did not establish this liturgical date in order to co-opt a pagan festival of the Sun. The dating of December 25th existed long before Sol Invictus became an official Roman festival. Thus, it is safe to say the celebration of Christmas, at least the timing of it in the calendar year, is free from pagan influences. This still leaves the question of “how” we celebrate Christmas on the table of the pagan/Christian debate. But this question will have to wait for another time.

 

1William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas: The Story Behind December 25th.” https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v
2Ibid.

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Matthew’s Christmas Bells

Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament

One of my favorite things to study in the Bible is the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. I say USE because the New Testament writers do many things with the Old Testament, only one of which is to interpret it for us. They apply it, draw comparisons with it, use it to illustrate or prove, or simply shade our perceptions with the foreshadows cast by Israel’s sacred history.

As we enter the Christmas season, I’d like to give Matthew his due as a creative and brilliant handler of Old Testament materials by taking a walk through the biblical wonderland of his Christmas narrative in chapter 1:18-25. There, Old Testament references and allusions fall around us like snow, light up our perceptions of Jesus with the vibrant colors of the heroes of faith, and ring the bells of prophetic hope. 

 

The Birth of Jesus

We open the scene with Joseph discovering that his bride-to-be is pregnant. Knowing that he himself is not the father, and being, like the great patriarch of faith, a righteous man, he thinks to divorce the girl quietly to spare her public shame. We hear the soft dinging of Genesis 15:6 as Joseph takes on the luminescence of Abraham.

Being the namesake of the great Old Testament dreamer, who was despised and rejected by his brothers, but sent ahead of them by God’s grace and providence to save many lives, this new Joseph has his own fateful dream. Joseph, the great dreamer, lends his own light for us here, as Genesis 37 chimes in the distance.

 

The New Testament Joseph

This new Joseph, like his forebear Jacob, beheld an angel of God in his own divine dream. Jacob beheld the angels ascending and descending heaven on the cusp of his first great adventure with God, and earned the name Israel upon his return as he wrestled a divine blessing from the very Angel of Yahweh. Jacob shines in Matthew as the knelling of Genesis  28:10-12 and 32:22-32 splits the air.

The angel greets Joseph with a messianic epitaph of hope from a host of prophetic cathedrals ringing in the coming angelic promise. He hails him, Joseph, Son of David. As David’s descendant, Joseph himself is a messianic hopeful for the fulfillment of the promises of eternal divine rule rising from the house of David. The valleys echo with the reminiscence of 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2, 110, 132; Isaiah 11, 16, 22; Jeremiah 23, 30, 33, 34, 37; Hosea 3; Amos 9; Zechariah 12 and 13. The starlight of David’s grandeur glitters brightly over the scene.  

Like his father Abraham, Joseph is met in this vision with the words, “fear not.” Indeed, here and now, the Lord is preparing Joseph to play his role in fulfilling the very promises given to Abraham on that fateful day. The ultimate inheritor of the promises to Abraham, the blessing poured out to the whole earth is coming into the world through Mary. And this one, born of woman, has been conceived through the Holy Spirit. Genesis 15:1 lends its voice to the chorus of bells.

 

A Miraculous Birth

Indeed, this is a miraculous birth, greater even than those of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Their stories, as well as the great promise of Immanuel’s birth, are intoned at several points of Matthew’s tale. Mary is “found to be with child.” Joseph’s doubts are met with “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared.” Of Mary, the angel says, “She will bear a son,” and, “you shall call his name Jesus.” The chime of Genesis 16, 17, and 30, 1 Samuel 1, and Isaiah 7-9 answer the rest. 

As a true son of Abraham, Joseph too is commanded, “You shall call His name…” And what a promise attends that command! The Lord declares, “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” Genesis 17:19 goes ding dong ding!

And what is Joseph commanded to name the child? He is Jesus, which is Greek for Joshua. Here, the Spirit-empowered, prophetic heir of Moses lights our path. This heir is prayed for in Numbers 27:16-17, promised in Deuteronomy 18:15ff, and typified in the first Joshua in Deuteronomy 34. He becomes part of the last days’ hope of Israel and is met in this new Joshua as referenced in several New Testament passages: Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; Luke 7:16; John 1:21, 25, 6:14, 7:40. The hills go wild with the melodious tintinnabulations of hope no longer deferred.  

 

A Promise Fulfilled

All this, says Matthew, is to fulfill the equally layered promise of the virgin born Immanuel from Isaiah 7:14… a sign as high as heaven and as deep as Sheol. Indeed, the earthly son from Isaiah 7 is a marker of hope for the house of David, born to Isaiah himself in Isaiah 8 as a sign of God’s deliverance. He morphs in Isaiah 9 to one who truly fulfills the name’s promise—Immanuel, God with us—a Divine King comes to rule an eternal kingdom, seated on the throne of David. 

From town to town, from distant mountains and out across the fields where shepherds keep their flocks by night and Magi read the starry lights, Matthew lets the Old Testament flutter around us like feathered rain. He illuminates the scene with reflections of the heroes of faith. He rings in the meeting of prophetic hope with the chiming of a host of Christmas bells. And he does it all in only 161 Greek words. It is truly a biblical wonderland of joy.