By Peter Corney
At the heart of Christmas is generosity and celebration. We are celebrating the lavish, extravagant generosity of God towards us in Christ. God has given us the most extraordinary, most precious gift one could imagine. The son of God steps into human history and takes on human flesh. He identifies with us in our joy and pain so that he might bear the judgment justice demands for all our inhumanity to one another, our violence, our exploitation and our petty betrayals. He does this so that the gift of grace and forgiveness can be made available freely to us by God. That is why we give gifts to each other at Christmas. That is why we party, feast and celebrate.
The other reason we celebrate and feast together at Christmas is that Christ’s first coming reminds us that he will come again to complete his saving actions and fully consummate the Kingdom of God. He will renew and restore this broken world, banishing death, entropy and decay and will usher in the new heavens and the new earth. (Rom 8:18-24) Interestingly that event is symbolized in scripture by the image of a great banquet,the Messianic banquet.
Jesus returned again and again to this image in his parables and stories, sometimes as a wedding feast, sometimes as a dinner party, sometimes as a great banquet.(Luke 14:7-24) The Lord’s Supper is also associated with the Messianic banquet. Jesus said; I will not eat this meal again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. (Luke 22:16) In his famous story of the prodigal son, when the lost son returns the father is so overjoyed he throws a great banquet and kills the fattened calf, a great extravagance in those times. In the book of Revelation the Messianic banquet is described as the marriage supper of the Lamb. (Rev 19:9)
Jesus was not doing something unusual in the use of this banquet image; it was one the OT prophets had used. The Lord almighty will prepare a table of rich foods for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine, the best of meats and the finest of wines…He will swallow up death forever, the sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces….(Isaiah 25: 6-8). It also appears in the well known Psalm 23 which we think of as the shepherd’s psalm. Now while the psalm begins with the image of sheep in the fields, at verse five it moves indoors and changes the metaphor to a banquet table, you spread a table before me…….my cup shall be full. The anointing, you have anointed my head with oil is part of the welcoming formality, along with the kiss of peace and water to wash one’s feet, that was the polite introduction for every honored guest to your house and table in the middle east of the first century. And then the promise of life in the eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
So when we gather around our Christmas tables loaded with special food and drink and decorations, this is what we are celebrating, this is what we are anticipating. All the work of preparation, all the food, all the gifts carefully chosen and wrapped, all our family and friends gathered together, all this is to remember, celebrate and give thanks for the future hope made possible by the entry of the Son of God into human history to restore and renew this broken world. We are celebrating what this rich image stands for – the joy of the kingdom of God, the abundance of the renewed creation, the unity of all people in Christ and our unfiltered fellowship with God. We can think of our Christmas celebrations as a parable of the future, even the tensions around the family table! Because we know that one day they will all be healed and we will all be in perfect unity and peace.
Now in my view that is really worth celebrating lavishly and enthusiastically!
What I find most difficult about the Christmas season is how some Christians become negative and critical. I’m so stressed, its so busy, there’s so much to do, sending all those cards, getting all the food ready, buying all those presents, all that expense…(This is partly driven by their reaction to the culture’s rampant consumerism and the Christmas credit card binge. They also feel that the true meaning of Christmas gets lost among the reindeers and snow flakes.) The problem is their negativity doesn’t help. It just reinforces the view of people outside the church that we are a judgmental bunch of miserable spoil sports who don’t know how to celebrate.
I often think we sound like the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. He comes home from the fields to find a party going on for his black sheep younger brother who has suddenly turned up. They thought he was dead. He is angry that a lavish party is being thrown by his father for this irresponsible waster who has blown his inheritance in wild living. The father pleads with him to come in to the feast and celebrate with them. This my son was lost but is found. But the older brother refuses to go in. This is a parable of the gospel and Gods relentless love for us and his desire for us to come home no matter what we have done. The banquet is an expression of God’s joy when any one comes home. It is also an image of what awaits us in the Kingdom of God. Don’t lets be ‘elder brothers.’
In fact one of the ways we could recapture the true meaning of Christmas for our culture would be for us to return to the full throttle way Christians originally celebrated our greatest festival. Part of our problem as western Christians is that we live our lives every week at a celebratory level and so when a real festival comes along the celebration is a bit ho hum. We need to scale back our normal living, live more simply, less extravagantly, spend less, eat and drink less and get ready to pull the stops out for the big Christian celebrations like Christmas and Easter Day. A practical suggestion is that in the month before Christmas we deliberately live more simply and frugally, like many Christians do before Easter. What we save we could then spend on our celebrations and give away in generous gifts to others.
Christmas is the time to celebrate at full throttle the saving power of the Gospel made possible by Jesus’ coming.
Peter Corney December 2010