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The Myths of Christmas

Isaiah 60:6 speaks of the dawning of the restoration (when the "glory of the Lord has risen upon you" [60:1]). It mentions exiled "sons" coming "from afar" (verse 4) and "the wealth of the nations will come to you" (verse 5). Camels from Midian, Ephah, and Sheba (the south) will come: "They will bring gold and frankincense" (verse 6).

In the kingship/messianic Psalm 45 (cited in Hebrews 1), the king's garments are fragrant with "myrrh" (v. 8). This psalm speaks of Israel's king as being over the "princes in all the earth" and "all peoples [Gentiles] will give you thanks forever and ever" (vv. 15-16). The magi's arrival signals the coming in of the Gentiles because the day of the Messiah has dawned. The end times have arrived.

Furthermore, the magi saw Jesus' star rising in the east (Matthew 2:2). We anticipate this from Balaam's prophecy of "the days to come" (Numbers 22:14) when "a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel" (Numbers 24:17).

The Gospels portray a Jesus who is reaching out to the Gentiles. He is telling the Jewish people to give up their nationalistic and social agenda and follow His agenda (N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, p. 27). Jewish leaders were preoccupied with traditional symbols: land, temple, law, kinship, and material blessings. Jesus criticizes the entire temple system and pronounces judgment on it, as symbolized by the temple-cleansing. It was necessarily tied to the old covenant with national Israel; Jesus complained about the failure of the ruling priests when He cleansed the temple. Instead of being a place of prayer for Gentiles and for regathering Israel's exiles, it fostered oppression and neglected the needy (Marvin Pate, et al., The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology, pp. 167-8).

What of the Angels?

In a verse of the Christmas carol "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," we read that the angels sang from "the cloven skies" with "peaceful wings unfurled."  Or in the carol "Angels from the Realms of Glory," they are summoned to "Wing your flight o'er all the world." 

The Bible speaks of angelic beings such as cherubim and seraphim as having wings (see Isaiah 6). However, what most people don't know is that the specific usage of the word "angels" in scripture indicates that they do nothave wings. They always appear in the form of men.

  • Genesis 18-19: Three representatives of Yahweh come to check out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The three appear to Abraham and then Lot (two come to him while the third goes to Gomorrah). Although they appear as "three men" (Genesis 18:2), Abraham immediately recognizes them as manifestations of the Lord. When they appear to Lot, they are called "two angels" (Genesis 19:1), and Lot takes longer to recognize them. In Hebrews 13:2, which refers to these passages, the author writes that some have "entertained angels without knowing it." This suggests that these angels appear as men -- without wings. If they had wings, they would surely be recognized!
  • Judges 13:3-6: First, we read that "the angel of the LORD" (v. 3) appeared to Manoah's wife (Samson's mother). Then she reports to her husband: "A man of God came to me and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome."
  • Daniel 3:24-28: Nebuchadnezzar sees "four men" in the fiery furnace (v. 25). He then says, "Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him" (v. 28).
  • Acts 10: An angel of God (10:3) appears to Cornelius, and the angel is later on referred to as a man in shining clothes (10:30).

Perhaps most striking, however, are the resurrection narratives. Although we read in two of the Gospel resurrection narratives that angels were at the tomb (as in Matthew 28:1-5, which refers to "an angel of the Lord," or John 20:12, which describes "two angels in white"), the other two Gospels speak of them as men.  Thus Mark 16:5 reads, "they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe," and Luke 24:4 describes "two men...in dazzling clothing."  We have strong reason to suspect, and no reason to believe otherwise, that the "angels" who appeared to the shepherds were perceived in human form. 

Docetism in Our Hymnody and Theology

As the familiar line from "Away in a Manger" states, "The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes." This picture presents a Jesus who apparently never cried as an infant -- and perhaps he never soiled his diapers or made a mess with his food. However, we must be careful about overemphasizing Jesus' deity and underemphasizing his humanity. This is the heresy of "docetism." (The word docetism is a derived from the Greek dokeō, meaning "(I) appear, seem." The docetic Christ seemedhuman but really was not.)

11/18/2009 5:00:00 AM