Back in the beginning of the Christmas season, I wrote about the way the gospel Christmas narratives “roll the credits” by giving genealogical tables that link Jesus to Jewish history. In contemplating Christmas, we should never forget that the first Christmas was first and foremost a Jewish event. Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper, the shepherds, the baby: they were all Jewish. And as the baby Jesus moved toward adolescence and adulthood, it was Jewish religion, Jewish literature, Jewish culture and Jewish history that shaped his personality and his mind.
These facts are so familiar to us that it’s sometimes easy to miss the troubling questions around them. A couplet by the rather distasteful British journalist William Norman Ewer states the issue:
How odd of God
To choose the Jews.
Ewer seems to have been making the kind of slyly anti-Semitic joke that was all too popular at the time, but there is a real question here — not so much about why the chosen people should be the Jews as about why there should be a chosen people at all. Why would a universal God who presumably loves all people equally choose one people with whom to have a special relationship? How does he reconcile the claims of this special relationship with those of universal justice?
The conflict in its most extreme form appears today between those who believe that the Jews have a God-given right to all of the land of Biblical Israel and those who argue that the Palestinians are people too and also have national rights to the land which cannot be ignored. Where does God stand in this conflict between what some see as his unchangeable commitment to his chosen people and his commitment to judge the earth without partiality?
This isn’t just a problem for God; it is something that people face all the time. Human beings have roots and those roots shape them; at the same time human beings have values (like freedom and democracy) and ideas (like the Pythagorean theorem and the laws of thermodynamics) that demand to be recognized as universal. In world politics we have debates between those who think that the ideas of human rights enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the subject are timeless and universal, and those who believe that the Declaration grew out of a specifically European history and needs to be modified in the light of other cultures and other values. Human beings are conflicted between ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘local’ values: universal ideas and the customs of the country.
We can and do get this wrong. In much of the world, corruption — the appropriation of government resources and power for private purposes — is endemic. People put the welfare of their families ahead of the larger social good. The twentieth century was filled with examples of the opposite mistake: people sacrificing tens of millions of human lives and destroying the traditional social structures of whole countries to build utopia. The communist utopia somehow never arrived; even if it had, there are questions about whether any general good could justify the destruction of so many lives and communities.
For Christians, the answer to these questions is found first in the Incarnation of Jesus and later in the experiences of his disciples as the Christian message spread from Jerusalem through the eastern Mediterranean world. Incarnation is the idea that God became man (from the Latin word for ‘flesh’ as in ‘carnivore’ and ‘carnal’); if the universal God was going to become a human being, he needed to become one person in particular. Human beings aren’t blank slates; as we grow to adulthood we are shaped by the culture that surrounds us. For God to be a man, he had to have this experience as well.
Although Christians and Jews disagree about many things, they agree that God’s special relationship with Israel was always intended to be bigger than Israel. From a Christian perspective, part of this larger role for the Jewish people is fulfilled through the life and work of Jesus. It was from Judaism and the Jews that Jesus learned who he was and what he had come to do. The long struggle of the Jewish people to understand who this God was who had called them, a struggle that continues long after Jesus and has its own dynamic and features quite independent of Christian thought, helped create a culture that shaped not only Jesus himself, but the band of close associates who took his message to the world.
If God intended to rescue everyone, to bring the fullness of both his love and his justice to bear on the human condition, God would have to become someone; this someone would have to be somebody from somewhere, speaking some languages and not others. The person would have a family and friends, would speak some particular language and work with a particular set of ideas. Saving all meant choosing some.
Without those deep roots in Jewish life, there could be no Christian faith; yet the first thing the young church had to do was to spread beyond its Jewish origins, encountering not only the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean basin, but the ancient cultures of Iran, the Arab world, Ethiopia, Armenia and beyond. At a very early stage, the written records of the church migrated from Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus and the Jews of his time) to Greek, the most common language of the eastern Mediterranean world. All or part of the Bible today has been translated into literally thousands of languages, and people from all of the world’s major (and most of its minor) language and culture groups pray to the God of Israel, acknowledge a Jewish savior, and turn their thoughts to Bethlehem in December.
The liturgical calendar (the church calendar used, with some variations and differences by Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists among others) makes sure we don’t forget the universal mission of the church as we celebrate Christmas. December 26 in the western churches commemorates the death of St. Stephen, one of the first Greek-speaking Christians who was also the first person to be killed because he believed in Jesus.
In the English speaking world, the “feast of Stephen” is known mostly because of its connection with the “Good King Wenceslaus” carol; it was “on the feast of Stephen” that Good King Wenceslaus looked out and saw that the snow lay “deep and crisp and even.” The multiculturalism goes on; Wenceslaus is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. For thousands of years the Catholic and Orthodox churches have worked to find and celebrate ‘national’ saints and festivals that will help the people of each country and region find something of their own in the Christian faith.
The imagery of the Christian faith similarly changes around the world to reflect local traditions and tastes. In Cuzco Peru there is a painting showing Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper; the main dish is the local favorite of roast guinea pig. Christianity has generally tried to ‘incarnate’ itself in the world’s different cultures and traditions, using familiar language and ideas wherever possible. This can be controversial. In the famous ‘Chinese rites’ case, St. Francis Xavier’s attempt to allow Chinese Christians to continue observing certain traditional Chinese rites commemorating their ancestors was condemned by Pope Clement IX in 1715. At other times, it’s non-Christians who object. In Malaysia, a Catholic newspaper has just won a court case allowing it to use the world ‘Allah’ to describe the Christian God in its pages against the objections of some Islamic clerics who feared this use of a familiar Islamic term could aid Christian efforts at proselytization. (In Malaysia, it is against the law to attempt to persuade Muslims to change their religion.)
Ewer’s nasty couplet set off a flurry of debate and response. “How odd of God/to choose the Jews?” ran one. “It’s not so odd; the Jews chose God!” The authorship of my favorite response is disputed; it’s been attributed to Ogden Nash.
It’s not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God
And spurn the Jews.
The record of Christian anti-Semitism should not be forgotten, especially at Christmas. How many Jewish families over the millennia have been driven from their homes by mob violence or by royal decree? How many Christian Herods have issued edicts to persecute the nation whose faith and whose culture gave Christianity its scriptures and its savior?
The Christian understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity has changed several times over the last two thousand years. For many centuries the dominant view was that the Church was the New Israel, and that once the Jews had rejected Jesus’ claim to be Messiah, they dropped out of God’s plan. They had a duty to repent and believe in Jesus, but otherwise, God was done with them.
For the last four hundred years, more and more Christians have come to the view that the Jewish people still have a special role in God’s plan (though there is a lot of disagreement about what that role entails). At the same time, a growing awareness of the developments in Judaism since the time of Christ and a deepening understanding of the theological importance of the Old Testament in Christian history have made Christians more aware of the debt that their faith owes to the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, even as the Holocaust unforgettably revealed the unspeakable evils to which anti-Semitism leads. As a result, although sore points remain, Christian-Jewish relations are probably better today than at any time since the first century of the Christian era and it seems likely that future generations of Christians will continue trying to atone for the past and building better and more respectful relations between Christians and Jews.
Interestingly, the twentieth century saw more than the beginnings of a new Christian understanding of Jewish history and culture. It also witnessed the extraordinary rise of locally-based and locally-led churches in ‘mission territory’ around the world. In China, sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, the twentieth century (and especially its last half) saw not only the greatest numbers of conversions to Christianity in world history; it witnessed an unprecedented flowering of locally based leadership developing forms of worship and organization that adapted the old faith to new cultural milieus as never before.
Where all this is leading one does not know; in Europe, its traditional heartland, Christianity sometimes appears to be on its last legs even as it flourishes in parts of the world where it was almost unknown just a century ago. Just as Europe’s political domination of the world ended in the twentieth century, its cultural dominance in world Christianity has faded away. A little more than two thousand years after the first Christmas, Christianity is both more universal and ‘cosmopolitan’ than ever, and more deeply rooted in more cultures than ever before in its past.
To Christians, the changes and renewals sweeping over the Christian world mean that Christmas isn’t over yet. The mysteries of Christmas and the Incarnation continue to unfold before our eyes. That little town of Bethlehem was the center of the world.