Moses at the Manger

Moses at the Manger December 25, 2014

Jesus comes with more baggage than Santa Clause.

On my flight to Vienna Lufthansa offered, among other really small screen shows, a Christmas Oratorio in some fabulous German church setting. Behind the choir was a large nativity scene, with one (to a modern American) surprising feature. Overseeing it all was Moses, identifiable by his “horns,” a priestly breastplate, and a Hebrew inscription on a kind of crown. Wild!

But not really surprising. Medieval depictions of the nativity often surrounded the scene with other scenes from the Old Testament that related directly to Jesus person as prophet, priest, and king. It is an iconography that quite intentionally linked (as does scripture) the birth of Christ with the history of the people Israel. Moses is present at the birth of Christ. His presence is as much a part of the genetic makeup of the Savior as old Jacob Hunt who came to the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 17th century is part of mine.

Which is something Paul struggles with in the book of Romans. And which we must struggle with as Christians today. For Jesus to be fully human doesn’t just mean that he possesses in full measure the abstract qualities of God and humanity. The incarnation begins, and cannot be comprehended apart from, God’s choosing of a particular people with a particular history in a particular land. There is no such thing as generic humanity located in an individual. To be a human is to have a history with a people. 

And for Jesus those people are the Jews.

Judaism the religion (whatever that means) isn’t an issue for Christians. As a religion it can be assimilated or repudiated in Christianity as we wish. As we have done that with the Jewish scriptures, which we both renamed (Old Testament) and reinterpreted.

But Jesus wasn’t Jewish in the sense of possessing a religion. He was Jewish in the sense of possessing a mother and a father who were Jewish, possessing an ethnicity, a society, a culture, a history. And for Paul it is the Jews as a people who, “were entrusted with the oracles of God” and whose faithfulness and faithlessness remain consequent even after the resurrection – God’s promises to them being irrevocable. Indeed the New Testament depicts the Jews as an eschatological reality. There will be no New Jerusalem without the builders of the old.

And as a people, like all peoples, the history of the Jews is geographical. Whatever the “new heavens and new earth” may mean we can’t drag them into the present in order to dismiss the relevance of the past. The “promised land” is just as much a part of Jewish identity in the scriptures as “the oracles of God.” And neither, despite our modern turn toward the abstract and essential, will go away.

Which is a good thing to remember at Christmas, because Jesus’ Jewish identity is essential to the very concept of incarnation. He was not “everyman,” because that would mean he was nobody. He was a Jew whose life, at least in legend, reiterated the life of the people from whom he sprung and ended in Jerusalem. As Paul knew well, we can’t have him without having them.

Christians are living in a time when the Jewish people face vast challenges to their identity and even existence. A time not so different from that of Jesus, yet one difficult for many contemporary Protestant Christians to comprehend.

For us an identity tied to land may seem strange. My own family (on both my father’s and mother’s side) hasn’t lived more than 2 generations in the same place for over 400 years. We are typically rootless Americans whose identity is tied less to place in America than an idea called America.

Not so for most Jews, including American Jews whose many migrations were usually forced for the sake of survival, and for whom Jerusalem, however fancifully imagined, never ceased being a real, physical place: a home-land.

Modern Israel, not least with its contested claim on Jerusalem is, at least to me, awfully difficult for a Christian to embrace. Its present government is gripped by a delusional understanding of both morality and geopolitical reality. Its people appear so divided, fearful, and self-obsessed that they are incapable of pursuing their own interests by democratic means. A mirror image of their nearest neighbors and enemies. It is tempting to give up on them all.

Yet we can’t. Because Jesus is the savior of all humanity no human is outside our family, including Palestinians both Christian and Muslim. And because Jesus was Jew we who call ourselves his brothers and sisters know them as our flesh and blood. So it isn’t easy, but it isn’t bad. At Christmas in particular we need a place, a history, and a people in the midst of an identity crisis based in that most common element of humanity – the land itself from which we all were fashioned – to be dragged out of our gnostic idealism into the fullness of incarnation.

Jesus comes with way more baggage than Santa Clause, and that is our only hope.

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