By now, we’ve heard quite a bit about the birth of baby Jesus, particularly if we’ve managed to attend a Christmas Eve service somewhere. And it is a glorious story, a warm place in Scripture where our souls can bask for awhile.
It also is a meaningless story unless we understand who Jesus is—why his arrival means so much. I do sometimes wonder if Christmas has become so secularized that it’s possible to slip through the season without considering Christ’s eternal nature and impact on the world.
Like the shepherds in Luke’s birth story must have done, we have to ask, why this baby? And then we have to take advantage of something the shepherds did not have, the full story of the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament together.
Hold your Bible in your hand for a minute. Find that slim section known as the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—and pinch them between your fingers. These few pages in four different ways tell the story of a man who, in less than 40 years of living, made sense of all that comes in the pages before and all that comes after, all the way up to our present day.
To understand the baby in the manger, we even can go back to the first people in the garden, seeing or perhaps even re-seeing what we might call the fall, the break from God, or the big mistake.
A couple of weeks ago, I had one of those exciting moments where you see something very familiar from Scripture in a new way. Oddly enough, I was watching a cooking segment on an early morning news show.
The guest food expert was showing the proper way to prepare a pomegranate, a popular fruit during the Christmas season. He showed how to slice it down the sides, submerge it in a big bowl of water, and then pull the fruit apart, separating the edible seeds from the skin and pulp.
This technique, he said, was to avoid the huge mess usually made when opening up a pomegranate. The juice is known for staining both clothing and skin.
What came to mind as I watched this segment is that in Jewish tradition, the forbidden fruit Eve took from the tree and gave to her husband was most likely a pomegranate. (There are some other candidates; a fruit called a “quince” comes up now and then, but the pomegranate appears repeatedly in Jewish religious tradition.) Our notion that she plucked an apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a western idea—the fruit is not actually identified in the story.
Imagine for a moment how seeing a pomegranate in the story changes it. Eve had no knife or bowl of water. Rather than delicately nibbling an apple, she would have ripped the pomegranate open with her bare hands to get at the deep red seeds, which are a true delight to the eyes. The purple juice would have sprayed, running down her arms and generally making a mess. Perhaps she and Adam would have even buried their mouths in the segments, staining their faces in the process.
We are reminded of just how beautiful sin initially can seem. But it just gets messier and stickier the deeper we find ourselves in it. The stains left by sin can even seem permanent.
“Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God,” the prophet Jeremiah told the sinful people of Judah.
Enter the Christ child, who was so much more than just a baby. John’s gospel opens by telling us his identity. He is the Word, the essence of God, and the Word “became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Only God in human form could overcome the mess we have made through sinning. Jesus grew into adulthood to teach us how people not stained by sin would love God and one another. He then made it possible for those stains to disappear by going to the cross, allowing humans to make a bloody mess of the flesh God had taken on, suffering to the core of his divine soul in the process.
In Christ’s suffering and death we are mysteriously restored to God. We simply have to believe that what Jesus did was effective. As proof, we trust in the accounts of the resurrection, and our own experiences of the Holy Spirit, God working within us.
If you struggle with believing your particular, horrible stains can disappear, look to Revelation, the final book of the Bible, a vision of creation set right through Christ’s work.
In Revelation 7:13-14, the man having the vision, known as John of Patmos, sees worshipers standing before God in heaven.
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
We also have Revelation 22:14 to consider: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” There we are, back at the trees of paradise, this time entitled to the fruit giving eternal life.
That’s why we remember the baby; he carries us into eternity. Merry Christmas, indeed.