Christmas time again. It means many things to many people, from loneliness and family strife to a kind of warm schmaltz with ideals of log fires and sleigh rides and jazzy Christmas numbers on the stereo. Even when we think about the original Christmas story, it tends to have a kind of mythic bubble around it, to exist outside of history. In relatively recent history, 100 years ago, Christmas was celebrated against the violence of the Great European war, and now we again come to it with the violence of religious terrorism in the background. This year, for me personally, the run up to Christmas has been dominated writing a book about Christmas, called ‘Christmas ghosts of pagan past’. I won’t bore you with the details, but in researching and writing it, I found again just how historical the story of Jesus’ birth actually is, and how we can tie it in with the religiously tinged political violence of King Herod’s last days. For what it’s worth I also found considerable evidence pointing to Jesus being born on 25th December.
This year, Christmas falls almost exactly at the same time as the Jewish lights festival of Hannukah, which celebrates God’s deliverance of the Jewish people some 2300 years ago from political and religious oppression. Hannukah is not the only Jewish festival that celebrates deliverance from oppression. The greatest Jewish feast of all is Passover, celebrated in March or April, and tells of the birth of the Jewish nation out of a veritable womb of oppression. Three and a half thousand years ago, the Jewish ancestors were kept as slaves by Egypt, the superpower of its day, and were brutally treated. God heard the cries of the oppressed Israelites and delivered them by plagues that brutalized the nation that persisted in oppressing them. At the climax of these interventions, God instructed the Israelites on how to avoid succumbing to the very final and deadliest plague. They were to take an unblemished, one year old lamb and for several days keep it within the family as a pet. It was then to be killed, and the blood of its death used to mark the thresholds of their hovels so that death would pass over them. The family also had to eat the entire lamb to be thus protected. Later generations had to remember and effectively participate in this event every year by partaking in the same feast. Passover was when the events of Easter happened, but there is also a couple of little known links to Christmas which we will come to in a moment.
By Jesus’ time, the lambs were sacrificed en-masse at the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. To avoid confusion, each lamb had a little necklace with the name of the family it belonged to attached. The lambs would come out of the temple ready for the families to roast and eat, carried on a vertical wooden stick from head to foot, and another horizontal stick on which their front legs were stretched, in the form of a cross, presumably with the name tag of the family it belonged to attached to the wood. A little known fact about Jesus’ crucifixion is that on the headboard attached to his cross, the first letters of the Hebrew words of condemnation that the Roman governor had ordered written there spelt out the holiest name of God. In other words, it identified Jesus as God’s very own Passover lamb, the Passover lamb of God’s family. What has this to do with Christmas, you might ask? Well, the ancient Jewish prophets not only predicted the birth in Bethlehem of this promised ruler whose origins would be in eternity, but they also predicted that he would be Emmanuel, or God with us, God with and for humanity, and that he would be a Peaceful Ruler and the Father or originator of eternity or eternal life. In Jesus’ time those Passover lambs who symbolized life and peace for the people of Israel were primarily born and raised in the fields around Bethlehem. The shepherds who came to see the baby Jesus were not ordinary run of the mill shepherds. They were the shepherds of the Temple flocks, and they would have attended on the births or the aftermath of births of countless Passover lambs, but on this night the angel directed them to attend the aftermath of the birth of God’s ultimate Passover lamb, the one who, as the angel said ‘will bring great joy to all people’ as well as ‘peace on earth to those on whom God’s pleasure rests’.
So, Jesus God’s very own Passover lamb was born amidst the very fields where the Passover lambs were born and reared. He preached and lived a message of peace, of wholeness, and was crucified for it, just like the Passover lambs were laid out on a cross for the wholeness of those who consumed them. But Jesus’ death at Passover was to bring a greater freedom and deliverance to all who will choose to live by his message and life of peace. Just like the Jewish families had to eat, to partake, of the Passover lamb to escape judgement in a day of evil and violence, so it is for us. It is not just from oppression of slavery to a political power from which Jesus delivers us, but from the greater oppression of slavery to self-centredness that blights our lives and communities, and that cuts us off from the peace, joy, love and life of our Creator God, the source of all goodness. Not only was Jesus killed at the time of Passover, but God then vindicated him and his message by raising him from the dead, which happened on the little known Jewish festival of firstfruits. The feast of firstfruits celebrated the very first of the early harvest coming in, and as the first part it signified more of the same, the promise of the full harvest of the same type to come in later. Jesus was raised to eternal life on that day, showing him to be the originator of eternal life for all who will participate in his life and sacrifice. Through Jesus, God’s own Passover lamb, we are given the opportunity to become and remain part of God’s own family, protected from inner death and oppression, as long as we participate in the Lamb of God who was born at Christmas, feasting on him in our hearts and living according to his message of peace – and particularly living at peace with God, the Creator and Judge of all. If we continue to feast on and live like the Peaceful Ruler, we will gain eternal life like his.
There is a bit more. Not only did Jesus die at Passover time, but according to an ancient and consistent church tradition, one that looks to be historically accurate, Jesus was actually conceived at Passover time, a date that many of the early church writings believed was also the anniversary of the creation of the world. Passover Lambs had to be a year old, and so they would have to be born around the Passover before. Passover moves in our calendar, but the most of the early church sources we have that speak on this subject state that Jesus was conceived on 25th March (sometimes mistranslated as ‘born’), and to this day traditional churches celebrate the Feast of Annunciation on 25th March. What that means is that not only was Jesus born in the place where Passover lambs were born, but he came into the physical world – was conceived – at about the same time as Passover lambs were born into this world. Thus Passover bookended Jesus’ earth life, signifying that delivering his people from all types of slavery and violence is what Jesus’ entire earthly life was about, and also that it was about the start of a new creation.
But, both Jesus himself and the ancient prophets also talked of a time when violence and the destructive power of sin would become so great on earth that all people would be destroyed, if it weren’t for the promised return of this Peaceful Ruler from heaven to take up his rule, but this time he would come initially as the Warrior Judge, to turn the violence of the violent back on themselves, in particular, on those who are violent against his own people and family. There will be, Jesus said, no middle ground – you chose the way of peace, of Christ, or the way that is anti-christ. So today, we all have a choice between two paths – which one will we walk on, and continue to walk on? Will you become and remain part of God’s own family?
My research indicated that 2000 years ago, the wise men likely arrived very soon after the shepherds, if not on the same night, then within about 24 hours. Those wise men expended considerable time and effort to seek Jesus. Today, wise people still expend time effort to seek Jesus and participate in his whole life, from birth to death and beyond into renewed life. This Christmas, let us be wise and seek Jesus, the Peaceful Ruler, the ultimate Passover Lamb, and the source of true peace, joy, love and eternal life. Seek him.