Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Christmas Thought

Even though the weather has been beautiful with temperatures in the 70s, you can still sense the days are getting shorter and you can believe that Christmas is on the way. Today it was my turn to give the noon devotion - or the lunchtime spiritual thought - and this whole idea of Christmas had been very much on my mind. While it has become a major holiday for us, the early Christians didn’t give it any thought. In fact, there is solid evidence that suggests that the origin of our Christmas celebrations came from pre-Christian times.

Our ancestors were completely dependent on agriculture to provide for their livelihood. Without modern technology, they were keenly aware of the cycles of nature. Each year they observed the coming of Spring and waited for the best time to plant their crops. The increasing intensity of the sun brought the Summer season. Plants flourished, matured and began to ripen. Then the sun would slowly seem to recede again - days grew shorter until the Fall equinox. This was marked with harvest festivals with thanksgiving for the abundant harvest. Then in steady progression the nights would get longer and colder until it seemed that cold and darkness would overcome the entire world. Leaves fell from the trees, grass turned brown, and it appeared that all of nature was dying with the receding sunlight. Would death and darkness win? Would the sun disappear completely leaving the earth to die? Rituals and sacrifices urged the sun to return again. Until a few days after the Winter Solstice, it could be observed that the daylight was increasing again, bringing with it hope for new life.

It seems that the Roman Church found it too difficult to stop people from celebrating this Winter Solstice festival so they simply shifted the focus to the birth of Jesus. This is why we celebrate Christmas on December 25 - four days after the solstice and the first day that you can be sure the days are beginning to lengthen again. Perhaps this is as it should be, since the birth of Jesus also brought hope for new life.

Each one of us has a strong personal tie to this cycle of nature. We are all born, and then barring accident or illness, we grow to maturity, then slowly decline. The events, people, places and ideas that we experience during this cycle of our life create our own personal world-view and our individual reality. From this perspective, our death marks the end of our world. However, God exists in a completely different Reality. One that is not bound by time nor by space.

The other day I was studying Hebrew again and I ran across something that truly amazed me. In reading the first chapter of Matthew I found a fascinating passage describing Joseph’s encounter with an angel as he was dreaming. In English we are familiar with the statement “His name will be Jesus because he will save his people”. In Hebrew it goes something like this “shemu Yeshua kee yeshua et imu”. OK. So most good bibles already have a footnote to say that Jesus means “Jehovah saves” - or even “he will save” - and it can mean either. What that footnote didn’t say is that “Shua” or “saves” actually comes from a Hebrew root YSHA that suggests “the action of being delivered from a tight, narrow place of danger to a wide open place of safety”. Perhaps the early Israelites were claustrophobic? Actually we preserve some of this same thinking in our English expressions like “I was really in a bind” or “feeling cornered”. When we are in a tight space we have limited choices and no room to move.

What did Jesus come to do? Perhaps he comes to us in our narrow and finite individual realities (which are bounded by birth and death, distance and time) and delivers us into the wide-open, unlimited Reality of God.

Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

PS. In support of my spoken devotion, Bud Styles - with support from Norris, Donnie and Emma Sue favoured us with a couple of Bud's favorite spirituals. This one was called "Jesus, He's gonna fixit - Oh yes He will now!"

I really wish you could have heard it - It was truly amazing!!

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