“Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” wrote Kipling. Prof. Mead, your grasp keeps getting higher and higher. I’m not sure you won’t reach that last step within your mortal life.
That was better than any sermon I have ever heard on this part of the Gospels. Thank you very much, Mr. Mead. 🙂
Mr. Mead, do you believe in pre or a post-millennium future regarding the Second Coming?
Oh, don’t know why I’m mentioning this, but read it yesterday so it must be true. Giving birth might have not as difficult for mothers back in the day, before our modern western diet. Guess a more primitive or maybe better said more nutritious diet creates better bone structure. It was observed by explorers 100 years ago to locations where people were eating what we would call a primitive diet that child birth was not the ordeal we have today, with hospital stays and 30% cesarean birth rate.
Thanks for this beautiful and insightful column. My family and I recently returned from a trip to Israel and part of my Christmas letter this year makes similar points.
What struck me most in visiting Galilee was the intimate localism of it all. Nazareth is near Cana, and so Jesus attended the wedding of a relative or friend and began his ministry by turning water into wine. Magdala is a community near Capernaum where Mary Magdalene lived, and so he and Mary became friends. I understand in seeing these places, obscure backwaters 2000 years ago, why the Sadducees and Pharisees, who lived many days’ journey from Galilee, would doubt that a Messiah could come from such obscurity. In my mind, however, this is the beauty of the plan. Jesus was not born as a king and raised with riches. He was part of a local community like the ones all of us inhabit, where people attended weddings, celebrated births, visited the sick and fished for their supper. It was through these ordinary circumstances, living in an ordinary community, that he was able to convey the most profound truths and ultimately transform the universe by his teachings, miracles, and death and resurrection. God came and dwelt among us and suffused the ordinary with the miraculous, spiritual and eternal.
We are especially grateful for the gift of the resurrection this year because we lost my father in August. I was fortunate enough to be there with my Mom at the time. It was difficult and painful for us all to see him through his last days, but at the same time it was a blessing to help him embark on his long journey. I was struck by how unnatural death seems, even though we all know it is the natural fate of all living things. Far from being dignified, death and the process of dying are harsh and unforgiving. The beauty of it is that this harshness reminds us with a force we could experience in no other way that death is not the end of our existence, but merely a way station on the road to renewed life. Our journey to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Galilee amplified this truth for us this year.
Thank you for your posts on Christmas. I am saving them for my children to read when they are older.
Tony, Great quote, but it’s actually by Robert Browning from the poem “Andrea del Sarto: Called the ‘Faultless Painter'”.
“Jesus seems to have come from a milieu that gave him the intellectual and social resources to argue on equal terms with the powerful and well connected – but that also gave him the ability to connect with the poor and the marginalized and to see them as real people….” A mix WRM that is truly a blessing and rarely encountered in 21st century ‘place’ striving – perhaps the unconscious conscience of existentialism (God made us free; our choices are real; and they have consequences;).
A very delightful Yule Blog (The Christmas story….).
Thank you, Professor Mead, for an enlightening commentary. If I may be forgiven one minor quibble, it is that St. Joseph is not described in the Gospels as a “carpenter,” but as a “tekton,” or craftsman. The term would have been used to describe any one of a number of skilled trades, including, I think, the practice of medicine. (It is also used, today, to refer to a mason (or Mason) and “architect” or archi-tekton is a master mason.) Your basic point, that with reasonable diligence and skill, Joseph would have been a fairly prosperous middle-class man, is well taken. Jesus himself is never, unless I am mistaken, referred to in the Gospels as a workman, but always as a Master or Teacher, i.e. Rabbi. He was as you note evidently well-educated by the standards of his day and community. Merry Christmas!
This otherwise excellent article is critically marred by the following statement:“Christians think there is good and evil mixed up in all people, rich and poor” is one reason the church is ineffective and unproductive generally and seen has hypocritical specifically. Apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit in us through repentance of our sin and our acceptance of God’s forgiveness and lordship of our lives, there is no good in men. AT ALL. How do I know this: because God Himself says so, many times in Scripture, but I’ll leave you with two very clear examples: “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5). And when He was with us in the flesh, God said, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt: 7: 10 -12) Generally I’ve found people who wear the veneer of Christianity, who spout Scriptures piously, but don’t believe that the Bible is the true inerrant Word of God, believe that there is some good in people. Since, from the evidence of this article, you don’t seem to be one of them, I cannot understand how you could make the statement in the first place.
Your Yule Blog is terrific–unadorned, and unsentimental, but that makes it even more profound. I, too, will be saving these posts.
@ms – thank you for your lovely thoughts. I, too, will watch my father die soon (as I watched my sister die two years ago). The glory of the resurrection doesn’t make it easy, but it at least makes it possible.
@Soul: There’s a simple test for the proposition that modern diets make childbirth worse. Do mothers in indigenous populations survive at a higher rate? NO.
@Fred: Thank you for the correction, which reminds me of the importance of checking one’s facts. I started as a magazine fact-checker here in Houston. In the beginning, I’d check even the spelling of “Dallas” because it’s the things you *think* you know that trip you up. QED
Coincidentally, I’m listening to a university course on the history of science. (See teach12.com.) The Romans were fabulous at technology — think of their aqueducts and central heating in very wealthy homes — but had little interest in basic scientific enquiry.
This fact helped hasten the decline of the Roman Empire because it had never practiced what we today call “energy efficiency.” It had all the energy it needed from the slaves sent home from newly conquered territories. Slaves who, for example, could be put to work continuously feeding fuel to a fire to heat a very wealthy home in winter.
Jesus entered the world to say that the life of a slave was as important as the life of an emperor. What even atheists today acknowledge to be “human rights” began with that principle. No wonder he was put to a tortuous and ignominious death.
@Ken Marks: If we’re all thoroughly evil, how can we be made in God’s image? Gen. 1:26-27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
My pastor once pointed out that the word translated here as “rule over” is elsewhere in the Bible translated as “shepherd.” To shepherd something is very different from ruling over it.
If you have the chance to go on a pilgrimage or historical/cultural tour in the Holy Land, and if you have a knowledgeable local guide (whose native language is not English), during your stop at the Church of the Nativity you are likely to hear something about the phrase “… no room for them at the inn.” It will probably amount to something like a chuckle mixed with exasperation over the mental picture created in the minds of westerners by the English translation of the key word “inn.” This is a case of weak translation into English.
The ubiquitous type of dwelling from the period of Jesus birth (outside the major cities) was an enhanced cave shelter. These used thermal mass for summer cooling and winter warmth. Often the entrance was a constructed wall with door and windows across a cave overhang type of shelter. Comfortable, cheap, safe – all around decent housing. The private family space was in the innermost portion. The word “inn” suggests to English speakers a commercial establishment of late medieval or early modern times for dispensing food and accommodating travelers. The actual word in the original Greek of the scriptures is kataluma meaning an “upper guest room,” a regular feature of these cave-associated houses of the time, not pandocheion, which would be closer to the commercial type. The lower cave levels were reserved for family livestock, which were a main source of wealth and kept close to the family for protection. Apparently at the birth of Jesus, because of the crowded circumstances (upper guest room was taken) and for privacy, Mary went to the stable to give birth because there was no room in the inner chamber.
You can go into this cave and place your hand through an opening and touch the rock that local people said was the birth site. The earliest available surviving identification of the site comes from Justin Martyr (b. ~100, d. 165). In his publication Dialogue with Trypho he says: “Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.” And if you are tempted to play the modern, sophisticated skeptic, remember this oral, living tradition comes from a culture that is striking to westerners today because of its inability to let go of any historical memory. If you discount the claim of Jesus birth site, it seems to me that in order to be consistent you must embrace the wildly optimistic view that Israeli and Arab, Jew and Christian in this place will literally forget all the past, oblivious of their respective historical claims, and embrace an optimistic bright new future together. Conversely, you could just believe the truth of a simple historical claim that is deeply meaningful and jealously guarded to this day.
And if you do enter that cave and place your hand through the opening you will encounter a silver 14-pointed star embedded in the stone with the inscription “Hic de Virgine Maria a Jesus Christus natus est.” (Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary). The 14 points of the star are said to represent the fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian Exile, and fourteen from the Exile to the birth of Christ (Matthew 1:1-17). Seven is the biblical number of covenant (God resting on the seventh day to covenant Himself to creation, etc.). The perceptive visitor will see that the birth of Jesus will initiate the seventh set of sevens. In that specific sense (not the Hollywood sense) we are living in the end times, and glad we should be of it.
Great post by Dr. Mead and some fine follow up comments.
Dr. Mead should be proud of his following.
At least on this occasion. As to tomorrow? Like life, who knows…..
I promise to stop posting about this essay, just as soon as it ceases making me think.
“Everything is relative” is a common saying today. I don’t believe Einstein or anyone else in physics or chemistry or geology would agree. We may all be related in the sense that everything in the universe is composed of fractions of that universe. But when everything we think we know is only about 96% of what exists, everything is certainly NOT relative. (See the book The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality.)
Still listening to the aforementioned history of science course, I’ve learned that the early fathers of both Christianity and Islam believed that what we now call scientific truth existed outside of religious belief. Augustine of Hippo (aka St. Augustine) said that theology had to conform to such truth, not vice versa. A like-minded Islamic leader said truth must be accepted even if it came from China.
Both religions got in trouble when they tried to subordinate physical truth to religious authority – when the Roman Catholic Church tried to stifle the discovery of heliocentrism, and when Islam began to coerce or expel non-Muslims. I *think* I’m correct about Islam; I don’t know enough of its history but surmise that its scientific fall behind the West stemmed from an enforced hegemony of thought – about what was allowed to constitute scientific truth.
Besides its own profligacy, the main threat to the West now is from fundamentalist Muslims, i.e., from people who never fell for the lie that everything is relative. You may pooh-pooh the idea that these fundamentalists are a threat. Romans pooh-poohed those they called “barbarians” until those crude barbarians sacked Rome.
Fundamentalist Christians who insist that every word of the Bible is factual pose a complementary threat. They marginalize Christianity by insisting, for example, that the universe was finished 144 hours (six days) after God’s first recorded act, complete with armadillos and kangaroos, and that Noah took armadillos, kangaroos and other American and Australian varmints on his ark. Such beliefs are so inconsistent with common sense that they make Christianity look foolish in the eyes of those who might otherwise be receptive to the Gospel.
As it happens, I just finished reading a novel in which an atheist believes himself to be “comfortably irrelevant.” Well, of course! Those who believe they have no irrevocable obligations to friends, family, or strangers probably do feel comfortable. Just as believers alienate themselves from their Source when they violate their Source’s principles.
Incidentally, both “relative” and “irrelevant” stem from the Latin word “relevare,” meaning “to raise up.” I find this ironic, since I think those who believe “everything is relative” and/or who are comfortable being irrelevant weaken civilizations built on the premise that all humans are created equal in worth. Even more than “hypocrites” who violate their Source’s principles.
Please note: the only people who cannot be accused of hypocrisy – of violating their own standards – are those with no standards.
Prof. Mead’s posts are a treasure. A comment on a comment, then a comment on something in the post.
Ken Marks: You say the following: “there is no good in men. AT ALL. How do I know this: because God Himself says so, many times in Scripture . . .” I’m afraid you are confused. In Genesis God saw what he had created and said it was not just good, but very good. The fall didn’t mar the goodness of God’s creation, including human beings. Sinners can love, show mercy, be kind, sacrifice themselves for the good of others, etc. Good doesn’t become evil because it is marred by sin. Good works apart from the blood of Christ, however, cannot save the sinner.
As for the problem of evil, I always argue that the problem is just as great, in fact I think greater, for the atheist. If you rid the universe of God does it make evil any more understandable? Any more palatable? Any more explainable? Actually, it makes it less on every count. I accept the mystery of evil with a sovereign and good God, because I trust his character that he cannot do wrong, as hard as this might be to accept at times.
The debate between “no good in man” and some “good” even in sinful man is unnecessary and confusing. When the Christian Scriptures talk about “no good in man,” the context is “goodness” that justifies man before God by complete obedience of His law (in its entirety: in what is done/said/thought and what is left undone/unsaid/un-thought). The Scriptures, in fact, declare all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The Scriptures make no distinctions to allow such a debate.
Instead, the Scriptures distinguish between those who believe God’s promise in His redemptive grace through His self-sacrifice and those who do not. The “goodness” of believers who love, who show mercy, who feed the hungry, who look after the sick etc. are all actions of God Himself through the redeemed parts of His creation and they DO NOT count as “credits” towards the believers’ salvation.
Similarly, acts of love, mercy, feeding of hungry, looking after the sick etc. by the unbelievers are also the actions of the same God, however, through the unredeemed parts of His creation and DO NOT count as “credits” against unbelievers’ damnation.
In both cases, those who were shown love, who were shown mercy etc. are recipients (both believing and unbelieving) of God’s grace. In other words, He can and does use both His redeemed and unredeemed parts of His creation to accomplish His will.
Therefore, the debate between no good in man and some “good” even in sinful man is unnecessary and confusing.