I had a real hard time coming up with something to write this week. After all, this stuff is all so familiar. Even people who don’t know anything else about the church know the Christmas story. What new could I add? As has been my pattern in the past when I got stuck like this, I went back and read the full text of the biblical narrative, not just the reduced version we have in “The Story.” Even that didn’t help at first, until I talked it through with Wendy. It was in my conversation with her that I realized that what had stood out was something seemingly boring and mundane – the genealogy of Jesus, through Joseph, as presented in Matthew 1.
Many of the names presented in that list have figured prominently in our studies of the Old Testament. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, on down to David and beyond. But the names that stuck with me weren’t the kings or the patriarchs. They were the women. Tamar, who played the prostitute to conceive by Judah; Rahab, the outsider prostitute from Jericho who protected the spies; and Ruth, the Moabite who came back with Naomi during the time of the Judges. All of these women were outsiders in one way or another. Yet they are the only women named in Jesus’ family tree. (Bathsheba is named indirectly as well, and, while an insider by birth, she certainly has some “outsiderness” associated with her story)
In general, throughout the Old Testament, we’ve seen a message of exclusion of outsiders — the goal has been the purity of the people, not the inclusion of others. In the coming of Jesus, we see a shift. It’s most clearly illustrated in what is known as the “Nunc Dimittis,” Latin for “Now Let,” which is the beginning of Simeon’s prayer on encountering the baby Jesus:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou has prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
and the glory of thy people Israel
(I normally quote from the NRSV, but this passage is so well known to me in this form from musical settings, I just had to use King James)
The section that I marked in bold is the key phrase. Jesus is coming not just for “the glory of thy people” but also as a “light to lighten the Gentiles.” Jesus is joining those two worlds. Not necessarily making them all the same, but joining them in their differences.
Beyond that, we have some of the “well known players” in our Christmas pageant: the shepherds, and the magi. Both groups bridging that gap between “insider” and “outsider” in their own ways. The shepherds were, we assume, Jews. Insiders of the people of God. But, as shepherds, they would have been scorned and avoided. Surely as “outsider” as an insider can be. Yet these are the people the angels speak to, announcing the birth of the Messiah. Then, there are the magi. They are also referred to as “kings from the East.” Surely outsiders. Yet they were wealthy men, met with honor by Herod, the king of the Jews. They were the ones who saw that star heralding the birth of new king, not the priests.
So what does all of that mean?
My own feeling is that, just as we are called to be followers of Jesus, we are called to be that bridge between those on the inside, and those on the outside. To be a “light to lighten the Gentiles.” To live our lives such that we can be a guiding light to others.
I think one of the greatest examples of the joining of the two faiths is the Last Supper in which Jesus takes two significant parts of the Passover Seder (bread and wine) and gives them a new meaning. The bread (matzoh) in the Passover Seder represents the Jews Exodus from Egypt so quickly they did not have time to let their bread rise and the wine symbolizes the four distinct redemptions promised by Godto the Hebrews as told in Shemot or Exodus 6:6-7. (1) “I will take you out of Egypt”, (2) “I will deliver you from Egyptian slavery”, (3) “I will redeem you with a demonstration of my power”, and (4) “I will acquire you as a nation”.