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.
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